Empire Prairie Project His Focus

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced John Kessler, of Madison, was named the 2020 State Natural Area Volunteer Steward of the Year for his dedication to one of the prairie remnants of the Empire Prairies State Natural Area, an 11-acre hilltop prairie that is one of five sites remaining from a vast prairie that covered northern Dane and southern Columbia counties 200 years ago. 

“Kessler has made a big impact at Empire Prairie in 2020 as a do-it-all volunteer, finding different projects to work on no matter what the season,” said Jared Urban, DNR State Natural Areas Volunteer Program Coordinator. “He is always looking to learn and figure out how to improve the site.”

Kessler has removed brush from around the cliffs and worked to establish native plant species there. He’s collected seed from species with a short collecting window and has fought invasive weeds like sweet clover, Queen Anne’s lace, sumac and aspen.

John Kessler smiles “His attention to the site has improved the quality and reduced the risk that invasives will take over, which frees State Natural Area staff to work on other Empire Prairie sites,” Urban said. Kessler works year-round on the site and logged more than 250 work hours at the prairie last year. In the winter, he dons snowshoes and hikes two-thirds of a mile to the site. His woody brush clearing has helped the DNR locate populations of uncommon plants that were on the brush edges.

“This is a precious little gem that’s been left untouched because it is so far from farm buildings, so it has not been grazed or trampled,” Kessler said. “Working out here is soul-satisfying and gives me a place to go for a few hours to soak in nature.” Inspired by his late wife JoAnn’s love of gardening and his life-long love of the outdoors, nurtured by growing up in Cassville exploring the Mississippi River backwaters and bluffs, he completed training as a Wisconsin Master Naturalist.

Kessler became interested in volunteering at the State Natural Areas after retiring from 27 years as a Dane County deputy sheriff and 11 years as a U.S. postal carrier. The Empire Prairie site has been a good fit for Kessler.

“I kind of need instant gratification,” Kessler said. “You go out and clear an area and there’s a flush of growth. It’s soul-satisfying. I get a deep sense of connection with the land.”

He also enjoys taking his granddaughter, Gracie, out with him to visit the site and complete small projects, like placing bluebird boxes. “Instead, we got swallows and 12 of them fledged. She was pretty excited about that,” Kessler said. “It’s a great way for me to introduce my grandkids to nature.”