Holding onto Cherokee Marsh

Jan Axelson


From the observation platform in Cherokee Marsh, you can see rows of wire cages set out in a shallow bay along the Yahara River. The cages and what they protect are part of Madison Parks’ award-winning project to keep our shoreline wetlands from floating away.

Conservation Resources Supervisor Russ Hefty shared the challenges and successes of the project in a recent presentation sponsored by the Friends of Cherokee Marsh.

The project’s goal is to protect the wetlands that border the Yahara River north of Lake Mendota. The wetlands absorb rainwater and help prevent flooding on the lakes downstream.

Without protection, the wetlands will vanish. After heavy rains like we saw last August, the plants along the shore float up as the river rises. Wind and waves finish the job, breaking off mats of shoreline plants and sending them downstream.

Aerial photos show how much wetland we’ve lost. Since 1900, the upper Yahara River has widened from around 50-100 feet to as much as half a mile in spots.

To hold onto what we have left, Madison Parks is establishing plantings in the water to serve as a buffer, catching sediments and protecting the river banks from damaging wave action. The plants also provide food and shelter for fish, birds, and other wildlife.

An early lesson learned was that muskrats, turtles, geese and carp love to eat and uproot new, unprotected plantings. Cages keep the critters out. When enough plants have gotten a toehold, they’ll be able to outpace the hungry wildlife and expand beyond the cages.

Each summer, young people from Operation Fresh Start help with the hard work of setting cages and other structures in the river. The project also uses Christmas trees collected by the City. Volunteers haul the trees onto the ice. In spring, the trees sink and attract aquatic insects, which in turn bring in fish such as bluegill and largemouth bass.

Russ explained how in times of normal rainfall, Lake Mendota’s level is managed at the Tenney Park dam. Lowering Mendota’s target level by even a modest amount would help protect the shoreline in the marsh and reduce flooding after heavy rains while having little effect on piers and boating. The City’s Engineering Department has requested a review of the lake-level policy from the Department of Natural Resources.

Good places to view the restoration from land are the hiking paths in Cherokee Conservation Park (6098 N. Sherman Ave.) and the shoreline at Cherokee Park along Burning Wood Way. For more about the marsh and upcoming events, visit the Friends of Cherokee Marsh website at www.CherokeeMarsh.org.