Wisconsin United Church Camps battle invasive plant life through reforestation project
Written by Emily Mullins
March 18, 2013

Portions of the woods surrounding Pilgrim Center have been cleared to make way for the new plant life.

In the woods of Wisconsin, invasive plant species, like buckthorn and garlic mustard, and tree diseases such as oak wilt are wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem. Native plants and trees are dying off, and wildlife is losing important sources of food and shelter. In an effort to put an end to the devastation, Pilgrim Center and Moon Beach United Church Camps are conducting reforestation projects to help restore the area's natural habitat and bring the woods back to life.

"We want to reinvigorate the woods around us, revitalize them, bring in new trees and wildlife," said Mike Klemp-North, director of outdoor ministry at Pilgrim Center in Ripon, Wis. "This is an opportunity for kids and adults to learn about the consequences of invasive species and what our actions are doing."

To prepare for the project, the camp's naturalists have been busy marking designated areas and removing the invasive plant life with the help of the state's Department of Natural Resources. During three or four weekends in April and May, groups of people ranging from youth to adults will visit Pilgrim Center and St. Germain's Moon Beach to plant more than 600 trees, shrubs and flowers that are designed to be resistant to disease and will attract wildlife in a natural way.

For example, the group plans to replace the buckthorn with native fruit- and nut-producing plants such as wild plum and American hazelnut to attract the area's deer and wild turkeys. Invasive honeysuckle will be replaced with shrubbery like ninebark and arrowwood to increase the bird and butterfly populations. The project's timeline coincides with Mission 4/1 Earth, the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative beginning Easter Monday, April 1, which Klemp-North thinks gives even more meaning to the efforts.

"It coincides with Mission 4/1 Earth perfectly," Klemp-North said. "Both areas have been battling these problems and have not been cared for for many years. We are taking time to deal with these invasive species and rebuild the sanctuary we minster in."

Most of the area's invasive species have been introduced by humans and spread over time, Klemp-North explained. For example, buckthorn was brought to North America from Scotland and Ireland because the charcoal from the plant could be used to make gunpowder. Once it arrived, the plant spread quickly with the help of birds that consume its fruit. Trying to utilize the buckthorn in a positive way, another project the groups will work on is turning it into a type of natural protective barrier. After killing the plant and drying it out, they will use the thorny branches as a fence to protect the new seedlings from wildlife and other threats.

Klemp-North believes this project presents a wonderful learning opportunity because the areas to be reforested are visible from many areas of the camps, and as the projects progress, participants will be able to see how treated areas compare to untreated areas and the difference their efforts make. 

Trying to utilize the buckthorn in a positive way, another project the groups will work on is turning it into a type of natural protective barrier.

"The laboratory is right in front of you and you can see it happen," he said. "You can also see how easy it is to take these steps, whether in nature or in your backyard."

The Outdoor Ministries Association and other United Church Camps are also getting in on the Mission 4/1 Earth action. The OMA is encouraging individual camps to create videos to lift up their environmental efforts. For example, Silver Lake Summer Camp and Conference Center in Sharon, Conn., will expand its renewable energy sources and also conduct a food source justice audit. Horton Center in Gorham, N.H., will establish and maintain a vegetable garden and will work to make the trail to the chapel easier for people with mobility issues to navigate.

"It's a perfect fit, and to me it makes sense for the Outdoor Ministries Association to partner and share in Mission 4/1 Earth," said Waltrina Middleton, UCC minister for youth advocacy and leadership formation. "They are really excited and energized to see a wider church initiative that speaks to the ministry and work they do every single day. This gives the OMA a chance to show that it isn't just about summer camps, but it's a 24-7 ministry commitment to ecological justice and conservation."

The UCC and the Outdoor Ministries Association are partnering to bring Mission 4/1 Earth to campsites across the country. The OMA works to promote outdoor ministries in all areas of the church, and to celebrate the wonders of God's nature. UCC Camps and Retreat Centers serve local congregations, nonprofit groups, families, individuals and other business groups year round. United Church Camps provide peaceful reprieve from the stresses and demands of the world for people of all ages and backgrounds.

The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.

With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.

Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days

Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.

See a video about the project here.

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