Back to Nature

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Community Converts Former Highway Department Property into Colfax Red Cedar Preserve and Recreation Area

Colfax Red Cedar Preserve has a variety of ecosystems within its 146 acres, including a pond, the Red Cedar River, prairie, and woods.

It’s easy to imagine, when wandering through the peaceful oasis that is the Colfax Red Cedar Preserve and Recreation Area, that it has always been this way, as Mother Nature intended. However, the story behind this beautiful, secluded bit of wilderness has a few unexpected chapters. Not too long ago this land was owned by Dunn County, used by the highway department as a gravel pit and a place to store cleared trees and other roadway refuse.

A few signs of the area’s former life are still visible, like the old service road leading into the property. However, that little strip of asphalt now leads to 146 acres of pristine nature including two miles of Red Cedar River frontage, a pond, some open prairie, and towering woodlands, all home to a wide variety of flora and fauna.

Less tangible but just as beautiful as the natural features is the community embrace that made this transformation possible. Individuals and local organizations worked together to restore the property and make it available to the public for hiking, fishing, canoeing/kayaking, snowshoeing, birdwatching, geocaching, or just plain basking in nature’s peace and quiet.

“It took a community that believed in this becoming a public property,” said Katherine Stahl, a member of the Colfax Red Cedar Preserve and Recreation Area management committee. “It’s a wonderful story of the power of a couple of people to get an idea going and then a community coming together to make it happen.”

Preservation Potential

The place was always beautiful, even during its highway-department years. Colfax-area residents enjoyed the scenery at what was known locally as “The Ferry Pit” as much as they were able when it was under county ownership and access was limited. Stahl is one such resident. As a longtime volunteer for various conservation organizations such as Prairie Enthusiasts, Stahl has a keen eye for native wildlife. She recalled passing the property one day a couple of years ago and spotting Rudbekia, a native plant with colorful, daisy-like blooms. She wondered if there could be a native remnant inside the enclosed property.

Stahl contacted the local conservation department and learned the area was still actively used by the highway department, so it wasn’t a candidate for preservation. However, Stahl was undeterred. She talked to a neighbor who used to canoe along the Red River there and they got to thinking how nice it would be if the property could be opened up for the public to use again. She decided to take a closer look.

“So I walked in there and there is a very small native remnant but there’s some open areas and it was just lovely,” Stahl said, “and I thought, boy, we could take these open areas and open it up to prairie, and there are some wooded areas to the west where it’s great for warblers and other birds, and then you have the river that has swans and all kinds of bird life, as well as the pond there. The variety of ecological niches there is just incredible.”

Interested residents reached out to the county highway department to gauge interest in turning the property over to the Town of Colfax for public use. The highway department was indeed interested; inquiries were made to the parks department, which supported the idea but wasn’t able to take over management of another park. Committed to claiming the property for preservation, the Colfax contingent determined they would manage the area themselves and sought ways for the town to assume ownership.

“The highway committee was wonderful to work with,” Stahl emphasized. “They tried to make it financially reasonable for the town to get [the property]but they couldn’t just give it over.”

The group turned to the Landmark Conservancy, a non-profit conservation organization that works with private landowners who wish to conserve their land in perpetuity, to help obtain a grant through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. A couple of donors stepped in to bridge the gap between the town’s purchase of the property and the release of grant funds.

A Heap of Helping Hands

When ownership turned over to the Town of Colfax in 2020, a volunteer management committee was formed to oversee restoration of native habitat and other improvements to the property. “We have a number of volunteers come out to help manage it,” Stahl said. “It’s a committee made in heaven—they’re just can-do people.”

Various community partners have contributed to the restoration efforts, which are ongoing. For example, the Colfax Fire Department conducted prescribed burns on the property to aid in habitat restoration as volunteers work to bring back more native vegetation.

“There were a lot of invasives there so that is something we’re going to be working on,” Stahl said. “We’ve taken out a lot of honeysuckle and a lot of buckthorn. So as we take that out we’re trying to open the forest for other native plants to come in, and then in the open area, if we could get a variety of native grasses out there and native vegetation, that will bring in more bird life and be a better habitat for other wildlife.”

Local businesses and organizations have stepped up to help with donations of time, talent, materials, and funds for various improvements. Among them is Dunn Energy Cooperative, which provided a grant through its Operation RoundUp program that will be used to add an accessible pier at the pond so visitors with mobility challenges can enjoy fishing or observing nature over the pond. Construction on the pier, as well as installation of a paved path toward the pier, was set to begin this summer.

Individuals have donated the benches and picnic tables that are placed strategically throughout the property, providing places to sit and enjoy the view. A group of geocaching enthusiasts makes an event of collecting trash from the preserve and taking it out as they put their geocaches in place.

Help has also come from visitors who have come out to enjoy the property and ended up pitching in, sometimes in unexpected ways. “For instance, a couple came out and there was some old fencing wire out there, and they asked if they could take it out,” Stahl said. “They did it all themselves—got rid of the old wire and restored the posts. Who signs up to take down old fencing? That just gives you an idea of what the community is willing to do.”

Outdoor Classroom

The preserve has also seen significant improvements at the hands of area students. This past spring, the Colfax High School Fishing Team installed recycling bins by the pond for easy disposal of fishing line.

Dr. Keith Gilland, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie and a member of the preserve’s management committee, has brought his students to the preserve to conduct studies on a range of topics including trees, vegetation management, and small mammals. His students have also done significant work in removing the invasive Siberian elm.

“We’ve just been absolutely blessed with all the wonderful things the University of Wisconsin-Stout students have done out there in terms of their studies and their hard work,” Stahl said. “And as they’re doing these things to help the preserve they’re also learning about habitat improvement. It’s really one of those win-win things.”

Educational opportunities are not limited to the local high schools and university, however. Every visitor to the Colfax Red Cedar Preserve is, essentially, a student. “It’s a wonderful place to learn about the land right around us,” Stahl pointed out.

To aid in that effort, retired Colfax High School biology teacher Mark Mosey, another member of the preserve’s management committee, walks through the property regularly to see what’s blooming, what’s growing, and which little creatures—furry or feathered—are making their appearance. He jots his observations down on a display at a kiosk set up at the park’s entrance, so visitors know what to look for.

In addition, the management committee hosts occasional educational events for the public at the preserve, including group hikes, science and exploration days, and nature classes.

The property has come a long way since its gravel-pit days. You could say this former Ferry Pit had a fairytale ending.—Mary Erickson

Colfax Red Cedar Preserve and Recreation Area is located at E8509 State Road 170, Colfax, WI 54730. Visit www.townofcolfax.com or follow Colfax Red Cedar Preserve and Recreation Area on Facebook for more information.

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