Never say never.

There’s a stand of pine trees at Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee, planted in the early 1990s, that hasn’t grown as tall as it might have in healthier soil. At Havenwoods, a 237-acre triangle of young-growth forest and grassland on the Northwest Side, you can read history in the dirt: meager topsoil raked by decades of farming, trash dumping, construction and demolition. Prior to the mid-1970s, the misfit land, initially granted to Milwaukee County by the federal government, saw use as a landfill, a prison farm and, once blight had settled across the land, an urban wasteland. Then came the bureaucratic blight of endless study committees theorizing over how to reuse the site that had come to resemble a tornado debris field. One proposal suggested building a utopian “city within a city” on the land, also home to a Nike Ajax missile site erected in 1956, one of eight in the area designed to shoot down Soviet bombers. It wasn’t until 1978, when the state Department of Natural Resources acquired the property, that it began its slow regression back to nature.

One of the key players in encouraging nature’s reawakening has been the park’s conservation biologist, Beth Mittermaier, recently reduced by DNR budget cuts to part-time. On a chilly afternoon in April, she followed one of the park’s trails up to the stunted outcropping of pines, an area carpeted with needles. “You get the different sound that a pine forest makes,” she says, “and your foot steps down in a different way.” Before walking down to Lincoln Creek, which cuts a ribbon through the property, Mittermaier stopped at a sky-gray buckthorn plant, bristling with its own needlepoints.

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“It’s a bully plant,” she says. “It produces too many berries, and they give birds diarrhea. They poop them all over the place.” And that’s how the buckthorn spreads. Mittermaier has mapped many of the forest’s other invasive species on a PC in the park’s Environmental Awareness Center (about 2 feet from a slumbering bull snake). Some 42,000 visitors a year come through its doors and down Havenwoods’ 6 miles of trails weaving around frog-happy ponds, the largest of which prevent Lincoln Creek from wreaking havoc downstream when it floods.

Havenwoods State Forest. Photo by CJ Schmit.

Photo by CJ Schmit.

In decades long past, there was no Lincoln Creek. The earliest reference Mittermaier has found to a stream in the area is a “Farm Drain #21” listed in 1930, apparently a fledgling water source that grew wider “as the city grew up,” she says. “More and more places grew impervious to water, and it had to go somewhere. And thus was born Lincoln Creek.”

It’s not uncommon to spot a deer at the park, or a muskrat, or a ground squirrel, or coyotes. Mittermaier estimates that students have planted some 20,000 trees on the land, which now looks nothing like a prison yard. “We did some planting,” she says, “but nature wins. Nature did a lot more planting than we did.”

People still walk into the Environmental Awareness Center, including residents of the next-door Berryland public housing complex, and say they’ve lived in Milwaukee all their lives but never set foot in Havenwoods. They didn’t expect to find a state forest around the corner.

“Anybody who had the vision that this could become a natural area was either really visionary,” Mittermaier says, “or really crazy.”

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Hear more about Havenwoods on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” here.

‘Never Say Never’ appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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