Planting the seedlings of hope

Amid the devastation wrought by the emerald ash borer, one man’s gift and the work of volunteers promise a green future at Harrington Beach State Park

Belgium Scouts were among the more than 50 volunteers who planted trees at Harrington Beach State Park in the Town of Belgium Saturday, April 28. The trees — 1,000 bur oaks — were donated by Mike Strauss of Port Washington.
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press Staff

There’s not a lot to cheer in the losing battle against the emerald ash borer, but Mike Strauss is planting the seeds of hope with a gift that will flourish long after the insatiable beetles have laid waste to forests and faded into oblivion.

Strauss, a Port Washington resident who grew up on his family’s Town of Belgium farm, donated 1,000 bur oak trees to Harrington Beach State Park in rural Belgium. On Saturday, more than 800 of them were planted in and around the park’s campground by a corps of volunteers as part of the park’s Work Play Earth Day.

The trees are tiny now. Children like the Boy Scouts who helped plant the oaks can pick them up by the handful. 

But Strauss chose his gift carefully. One day the oaks will be stately, hardy trees, so large that even a man won’t be able to wrap his arms around their mighty trunks.

“Oaks are strong trees that last hundreds of years,” Strauss said, citing some examples at Hawthorne Hills Golf Course in the Town of Saukville.

“Somewhere near the 15th or 16th hole, there’s an oak that predates the Revolutionary War. Another is older than the Civil War.”

Strauss, who has donated trees to Belgium parks in the past, was driving through rural Belgium last year when he was struck by the devastation caused by the ask borer in Harrington Beach State Park.

“All the trees were dead,” he said. “I thought it would be a good thing to get some new trees growing.

“I’m a big believer in planting trees.”

Strauss purchased the oaks from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 80 cents each and donated them, as well as stakes and plastic trunk protectors to prevent damage caused by deer and other critters. He said Ansay & Associates also contributed to the cause.

Donations like the one made by Strauss are more important than ever as state park budgets shrink, Elaine Stecker Kochanski, secretary of the Friends of Harrington Beach State Park, said.    

“We’re lucky to have people like him,” she said. 

Strauss’ gift, Stecker Kochanski said, provides hope amid an otherwise grim situation.

“I moved back here three years ago, took one look at the trees and thought, ‘Wait, what’s wrong here,’ she said.

“The loss of trees has been very distressing to the campers who return to the park every year. They said, ‘I used to love this site. There was so much shade.’”

No one knows the damage done by the emerald ash borer in Harrington Beach State Park better than Park Manager Ken Severn.

“We’ve cut down thousands of ash trees,” he said. “I couldn’t even tell you how many, just thousands of them.

“We’ve pretty much clear cut entire areas, and we have a lot more to go.”

About 85% of the trees in the 750-acre park are ash, Severn said, and their demise has been rapid.

When the park initially started clearing ash, the felled trees had value as lumber.

“Now they’re very questionable,” he said. “A large number are dead and falling down. We’re basically just using them for firewood at the campground.”

The priority is to cut down ash trees along trails and areas of interest and protect the precious old-growth maple and oak in the park, Severn said. 

The oaks donated by Strauss won’t be considered old-growth for more than a century, but generations from now they will be magnificent specimens that stand as a rebuke to the ash borer.

“Right now, when you’re walking around planting these trees, you can carry about a dozen in your hand,” Severn said. “But 30, 40, 50 years from now, they will be beautiful, something for many generations to enjoy.”

That speaks to the value of Strauss’ gift, he said.

“Mike is a very, very generous man,” Severn said.

Tree planting will continue Saturday, May 5, starting at 9 a.m. Volunteers are asked to gather at the Ansay Welcome Center. The Friends of Harrington Beach State Park will provide lunch.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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