When Paul Mozina takes on a project, he doesn’t give up until it’s finished. That’s not an unusual characteristic, necessarily. Yet Mozina’s dedication is anything but ordinary.
For the past six years, Mozina, with the unfailing support and frequent help of his wife, Pati Holman, has been waging a battle against buckthorn, an invasive plant that once covered most of Wisconsin’s Hartland Marsh. Today, buckthorn is all but eradicated from the marsh, and Mozina and Holman are the team that did it.
Their work began on property owned by the Ice Age Trail, a 1,000-mile trail that follows the furthest edge of the glaciers that formed much of Wisconsin’s landscape. The glaciers pushed silt and debris ahead of them, then left behind their footprint, in the form of lakes and moraines, when they melted. The land is rich and fertile, providing healthy soil for the many forests that cover much of the state.
Mozina is especially fond of the old-growth oak trees in Hartland Marsh, he tells me. But their lives were threatened by two non-native species of buckthorn that all but covered the area. This troubled Mozina, who had been doing buckthorn eradication for the previous five years in the south Kettle Moraine, working at Brady’s Rocks with the DNR.
“I just kept thinking about the Hartland Marsh. I used to mow for the Ice Age Trail, and I took a mower out there. So I was very familiar with it. It was just so degraded, but the giant oak trees were so magnificent, and I saw the potential for this place.
Conquering an Invasive Species
Buckthorn has its place, if cared for properly. When settlers brought European and Japanese buckthorn to the area, they apparently intended to create thick hedges to keep deer out of their gardens.
“But if you don’t prune them,” Mozina explains, “they turn into 30- or 40-foot tall trees. And they just choke everything out. They change the humidity and the growing conditions for the oaks. The buckthorn grows up between the branches of the big oaks, and the low oak branches start to rot because they are shrouded in the shade of the buckthorn. Eventually, you get grapevines and other kinds of wild vines growing up on the buckthorn. And the next thing you know, you’ve got giant grape vines in your oak trees, and the oak trees die. The branches fall off, and the trees break. There was a lot of evidence of that happening out there in the marsh.
“Buckthorn give such thick shade that they kill everything underneath on the ground. Then the only thing growing on the forest floor is garlic mustard, a weed that can grow 4 or 5 feet tall. The buckthorn completely changes the ecosystem. Oak seedlings can’t grow in a buckthorn thicket, so what happens is the buckthorns take over, choke out all other plants, and dominate the woods. You lose your big oak trees.”
“The Ice Age Trail has a boardwalk around the marsh, and we’d go out with loppers and just cut the branches off the buckthorn so we could walk on the boardwalk. After a while, I thought, This is crazy. I had already been doing some chainsaw work, so, once I got permission, I just started cutting the buckthorn down.”
Fortunately, the oak trees in Hartland Marsh were still viable when Mozina got started in the 180-acre area. “It’s unbelievable. Some of the biggest oak trees in southeastern Wisconsin are on this property,” he says. “About 60 percent of the area is marsh and 40 percent is woodland — more or less.”
From Garbage Dump to Navigable Waters
Though buckthorn was the biggest challenge, taking six full years to bring under control, it wasn’t the only problem Mozina found. “The Bark River flows through there, and it was a garbage dump. There were tires and refuse piles and bottles and cans. But up in the canopy, you’d see these beautiful oak trees,” Mozina says.
So Mozina, Holman, and their friend Mark Mamerow picked up trash and collected garbage from the river. They convinced the nearby Village of Hartland to haul some of the trash away, and they recycled a lot of it themselves.
While talking with us about his fight to save Hartland Marsh, Mozina, who is a systems administrator in his day job, says, “I’m not a purist, the way I’m doing it. I’m using poison on the buckthorn stumps, and I’m burning the brush piles. If you see the scale of it — I’ve worked on it one or two days a week for the last six years… That’s another level of organization and time that I just can’t spend.”
Six years. The enormity of his undertaking finally sinks in, and I am astounded by his dedication.
“Thank God my wife, Pati, is 100 percent behind the effort. I’m out every weekend, and she supports me by coming out to help pile brush and poison stumps. She gives me the freedom to pursue this project,” he says. “I was working today, and it’s just so gratifying.”
The property itself is sizable — about 180 acres, he estimates. When Mozina describes the Hartland Marsh, I begin to understand the scope of the problem. And I marvel even more at the commitment this man has made to volunteer nearly every spare minute on land that isn’t even his own.
“There are four parcels that make up this rectangle. The Ice Age Trail owns the biggest parcel. There are two major islands on the property, surrounded by wetlands. About eleven years ago, my main mentor, Marlin Johnson, got started on one of the islands. Later, he moved on to something else, and I went to work at another location in the Kettle Moraine for five years. I came back to this project six years ago. It was a beautiful piece of land right on the Bark River that was just going to hell,” Mozina says.
A private landowner owns a strip of land on the southern border. Waukesha County Land Conservancy owns another 26 acres. And the Village of Hartland owns the fourth parcel. Village Adminstrator Wally Thiel and Director of Public Works Michael Einweck have played instrumental roles.
Mozina started on the western border, going east. “We’re wrapping up the project,” he says. “It’s really gratifying.”
Twice a year, for the past few years, students from Arrowhead High School have been going the marsh for brush-piling workdays. Mozina had contacted the local high school biology teacher, Greg Bisbee, to offer students a real-world experience in nature in return for help. “Last November we had 60 kids helping on the Village land,” he says, “a group in the morning and a group in the afternoon. They pulled the brush over to the trail, and then the Village came in with a chipper and chipped it up.” Holman helps coordinate the volunteer effort and keeps the troops supplied with cookies and drinks — a welcome reward for the students’ hard work.
Some of the chips were used to make walking trails. “There’s a nice trail system,” Mozina tells me. “It’s just beautiful. There’s all kinds of wildlife out there: deer, great horned owls, foxes, possums, raccoons, coyote. There are at least six or seven different springs in different locations. Bubblers come right out of the ground and flow into the river.
“The river flows into nearby Lake Nagawicka, and the Lake Nagawicka Association is interested in the water upstream that’s coming into their lake. They’re very concerned about the Bark River, and have been trying to make it navigable. We’re also participating in that effort because the Bark River flows through the Waukesha County Land Conservancy and the Ice Age Trail. There’s so much garbage in the Bark River. Pati, Mark, and I canoe down the Bark River, and we cut the snags and scoop up all the garbage.
“It’s really exciting, because we’ve just made the river navigable. We finally cut through all the buckthorn and cleared the duckweed. You can start out at Nixon Park in the middle of the Village of Hartland and take your canoe all the way to Lake Nagawicka, which is about 3 1/3 to 4 miles away. A big part of your journey is through this land that we’re restoring.”
Friends and Family Pitch In
I ask Mozina who has been helping him and his wife with the extensive work required to restore 180 acres. This humble man is quick to give credit to others.
“We get help with the burning from a crew of guys. Mike Fort is leading the Prairie and Oak Woodland Restoration Project at Lapham Peak State Park; he is one of our mentors as far as this effort goes. He’s been doing this work for a long time and is also very excited about the Hartland Marsh project. He brings a crew out with him to help me burn and also supplies seeds and poison [for the stumps]. In the winter of 2007, we burned 309 brush piles that weren’t on the Village land. That was a lot of years’ work.” Mozina adds, “Another friend, Greg Slavik, a legendary drummer with the local band Bluehand, also brings his torch out to help us light up piles.”
But Mozina, himself, has clearly done the majority of the work in the marsh. “I’m definitely the committed, crazy one that is out every weekend,” he says with a laugh.
And evidence of his work shows in the biodiversity that is coming back into the marsh area. “I’m really excited about this,” he says. “Oaks are pretty much a biannual as far as food production. The last couple of years, there have been bumper crops of acorns, and there are oak seedlings coming up everywhere in the spring.
His energy seems boundless, as he talks about restoring the marsh to its earlier glory. “Another aspect of the project is that we’re doing seeding. We’re sowing various native ground covers. These oaks grew up in a savanna. They’re big, wide-spreading oak trees, with big, wide branches. They grew up in a grassland setting. Since the buckthorn came in, everything in the understory was killed, and so we’re restoring the native flora. We’re planting Canadian rye, Virginia rye, bottlebrush grass, golden rod, white snakeroot and all kinds of different oak savanna/woodland plants. My mentors guided me as far as what to plant. Every fall, we’ve been going to different places and harvesting seeds.
“In addition to planting the grasses and native flowers, we’re also planting bushes. Last year we planted about 400 bushes. Marlin got the money for those; someone had donated money to the Ice Age Trail specifically for the marsh, so we had a pool of money for that. These were tiny little seedlings, and he got them for next to nothing. Then we had a terrible summer rain and a lot of them got washed out. That might have been a bust. We also planted juneberry, nannyberry, elderberry and red-twigged dogwoods.
“In fact, we’re doing a combination of things. We’re cutting the buckthorn, and we’re getting rid of box elder and mulberry, and some of the soft wood and the weedy, spreading trees. We’re trying to cultivate the burr oaks, white oaks, red oaks, black oaks, and cherry.
“I love big trees. That’s the bottom line. Our focus in the short term has been to get the weeds out, get the buckthorn out, and get the oak healthy again. Pati and I get a lot of enjoyment out of the work. It’s been a really satisfying effort to work on.
“This project has just turned out so well. Everyone who has worked on the project is thrilled about it,” Mozina says.
As well they should be.
NOTE: Hartland Marsh is approximately half an hour’s drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and — other than the section owned by a private individual — is open to the public. To support the work Mozina is doing at the marsh, contact the Ice Age Trail, and designate your donation to the Hartland Marsh Restoration Project.