Wisconsin wetland wizard earns national award

By Tim EiseleCorrespondent

Portage, Wis. – Most of Wisconsin’s hip-booted clan would prefer
to keep their boots moist in Wisconsin marsh muck and stay away
from the likes of large urban areas.

But Jeff Nania, executive director of the Wisconsin Waterfowl
Association, and someone who has worked tirelessly to restore
thousands of acres of wetlands to Wisconsin, is heading to
Washington, D.C., on May 9 to accept the 2007 National Wetlands
Award for Conservation and Restoration.

The national award is from the Environmental Law Institute, EPA,
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Highway Administration,
USDA Forest Service, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service,
NOAA Fisheries, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Nania admits to being overwhelmed, saying, ‘Why would they give
this to me?’

‘I’m not much different than people who hunt and fish in
Wisconsin, because there are a lot of people who just want to give
something back to the natural resources,’ Nania said ‘That is what
I wanted to do – give something back.’

Nania, a Madison native who grew up hunting with his dad in
northern Dane County on a wetland that has since been drained (and
he would like someday to restore), now lives in Portage. He has
been the WWA executive director for the past seven years and, prior
to that, was the WWA project director for 15 years.

His work all started when WWA decided it wanted to build its own
wetland projects, and it wanted Nania to take a new look at how
projects should be built.

Most projects in the past simply put water on the land, but
people noticed that duck marshes declined in productivity after a
few years. Nania studied more than 100 projects, some that were
natural, some restored, and he found a correlation between those
natural, unaltered systems and restored wetlands that all
worked.

‘We launched what we call an ecosystem-based restoration, with
the assumption that restoring wetlands is good for everybody and
all wildlife,’ Nania said. ‘That took great courage for the WWA
board of directors because sometimes we will restore a wetland
that’s not good for ducks, but it needs to be done. We restore not
just shallow marshes, but altered systems and the uplands.’

Nania prepares a site history, including an examination of
pre-restoration conditions, soils, remnant seed bank, hydrology,
and site topography. Using this information, as well as talking to
landowners who used to live on the land, he comes up with a
restoration plan for a variety of wetland types, including not only
shallow emergent ‘duck marshes,’ but also sedge meadows, upland
grasslands, and woodlands.

His work includes plans, design, permits, and construction. He
also arranges funding for private landowners.

For instance, the standard protocol used to be plugging a ditch
to bring water back onto the land. Nania had the USGS hydrologist
study the volume of water and gradient of flow to realize that
adjacent mesic areas would dry out and become invaded by reed
canary grass and invasive species.

Nania learned to fill in the entire ditch and thus capture all
the water he could, by changing the man-made alterations. He also
learned that allowing water to fill from the ground up would allow
historic seedbank in the soils to grow.

He’s found the native seedbank to be abundant, learning that
when farmed it often ‘goes to sleep,’ but when awakened and
stimulated with water, it will return.

He looks at the site to find out what happened. Did the
landowner tile it or ditch it? Where are the ditches and spoil
banks, and where is the water now and where was it
historically?

He uses aerial photos, some that go back to 1937, and talks to
farmers who farmed the land years ago to determine the historic
properties of the site. He measures the topography which can tell
what type of wetland plants will grow, what are the soil types
(which tell a lot about what type of wetland was there), and comes
up with a map of the site.

Nania begins the restoration process with the topographic map
and what he thinks the end product will be, but he never predicts
the end point completely.

‘The biggest fault is a plan that says exactly what we will do,
because during the process it will change, or we aren’t doing the
site justice,’ Nania said. ‘In the end, we look at our failures and
successes, and we try to do the very best job we can.’

If the proof is in the pudding, Nania can dish up more than 200
projects, the smallest being one-eighth of an acre and the largest
being 1,000 acres. He’s even been called upon to consult on wetland
restoration in Iceland on a 7,000-acre project.

Becky Abel, executive director of the Wisconsin Wetlands
Association, coordinated the nomination of Nania for the award and
is pleased that he’s being recognized nationally.

‘Jeff is right in the middle of every aspect of wetland
restoration,’ Abel said. ‘He works at the ground level on actual
restoration, and he works with legislators and with youngsters on
outdoor education. There is nobody else like him, he is so
passionate about wetlands, and especially historic restoration to
restore the landscape to what was there before.’

Abel said that not everything has to result in a pond, and Nania
looks at the landscape and tries to reverse all changes, which is
unusual in wetland restoration. He doesn’t just plug a ditch, but
he fills it in and then restores the surrounding topography so that
the hydrology is much more in line with what was there before.

‘He is a perfectionist and is constantly trying to get more
information on how natural systems work,’ Abel said. ‘He restores
uplands as well as wetlands, and uses the original seedbank; he
does every piece of it.

Nania lives in Portage with his three children, Jim, Chris, and
Becky, all of whom he says ‘have served penance as part of my
wetland restoration field team.’ In past years, he’s driven around
with his children to inspect all of the wetland restorations he’s
worked on in yearly follow-ups.

He admits to being ‘absolutely fascinated’ by the process of
wetland restoration.

He believes Wisconsin is special because of its natural
resources.

‘Without its natural resources, Wisconsin is nothing but a place
to get gas between Illinois and Minnesota,’ he said ‘The joy of
hunting, how I was raised, giving something back – that’s all
important. But what has kept my interest is the fascination with
the process of restoration. It is a miracle. But also, the people
of Wisconsin are special. I can’t tell you how many landowners I’ve
worked with who just want to do something to benefit natural
resources. That just fuels my fire.’

Nania is quick to lend accolades to LMS Construction in
Poynette, which has been an integral part of most restorations and
does whatever is necessary to get the work done. It has donated
many hours of work and also helps develop new restoration
techniques.

He also points to assistance and support from partners such as
private landowners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the
Wisconsin Wetlands Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the
DNR.

Awards are not new to Nania. He won the Wisconsin Wildlife
Federation Conservationist of the Year in 2006, a partnership award
from The Nature Conservancy, and the Columbia County Wildlife Award
from the land conservation department.

Nania has a great deal of concern about youngsters’ lack of
contact with the outdoor world.

‘We have somehow goofed with kids; our kids have so much to
entertain them at home – TV channels, video games – that they don’t
have to go outside,’ he said. ‘When I grew up, my dad got me
outside, even though I grew up in an urban area. We are trying to
change that with the River Crossing Environmental Charter
School.’

Nania helped to start this unique charter school for seventh-
and eighth-graders in Portage five years ago. He’s trying to
restore kids’ love of outdoors, because he believes the future is
dependent youths.

He is disheartened that many school kids have a one-day field
trip and that’s the extent of their ‘outdoor environmental
education.’

The Portage School District was interested in starting charter
schools, and Nania had the opportunity to let the kids work on
projects and spend a day each week with him, whether it was working
on a project or tagging along when he went to the capital to talk
to legislators or testify at public hearings.

‘They do what I do, burning prairies, surveying, restoration
projects, and they love it,’ he said. ‘Some kids are looking at a
different educational experience, and this is a full-time seventh
and eighth grade, and they make a commitment beyond the school day,
and all take hunter safety training as part of the program.’

The class is limited to 18 youngsters, and the first group that
participated is graduating from high school this spring and some
are going into natural resources fields in college.

‘We have to invest in these kids,’ Nania said. ‘I want us to
keep these kids in Wisconsin.’

He believes it is time to:

Embrace private landowners who want to restore wetlands, which
will require changes in the regulatory complex. ‘We have the
know-how, the landowner, the money, and the skill, but often we do
not have the state permit. We need the regulatory glacier
changed.’

He is concerned about the decrease in the number of trappers
and the increase in predators, which is having an effect on
ground-nesting birds.

He believes outdoorsmen need to be a part of the process.

‘There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who have decided that
people who hunt and fish don’t matter any more, but in Wisconsin
those people are still the backbone of conservation,’ Nania said.
‘If we want hunting and fishing to continue, we need to be
involved. Sen. Dale Schultz once said it best that government is
run by those people who show up, and if you don’t show up, you may
as well shut up and take what you get. It does no good to complain;
you need to be a part of this process.’

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