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Madison arboretum added to National Register of Historic Places

By MARY KATE MCCOY Wisconsin Public Radio

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Maybe you know the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum for its magnolias, crabapples or lilacs in the spring. Or, for its abundance of wildlife and effigy mounds.

Whatever the reason, the beloved Madison landmark is now joining the ranks of sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Arboretum’s placement on the list has been in the works for years; the first rumblings that it might happen started in 2003.

The architectural historian Elizabeth Miller said the Arboretum’s reputation as the “birthplace of restoration ecology” was the main reason for its listing.

“I’m just really excited to see the Arboretum get some of the recognition that it deserves,” she said. “All of that research that’s been done in the Arboretum has become the basis for restoration ecology throughout the country.”

The Arboretum joins 70 other properties around UW-Madison’s campus that are already listed as protected historic places, Wisconsin Public Radio reported. To qualify, a place must be at least 50 years old and have one of the following: significance in history or architecture, archaeological value or an association with a significant person.

Nominations are first approved by the Wisconsin Historical Society and then passed on to the National Park Service. Placement on the list means a project’s historic significance must be taken into account whenever changes are proposed.

For the Arboretum, this is largely a symbolic step, although the listing does give it more opportunities to receive grants and incentives.

Since the first 246 acres were purchased for the Arboretum in 1932, the institution’s role has primarily been for research — ranging from studies of monarch butterflies to invasive species and climate change —and restoration. Karen Oberhauser, director of the Arboretum, said it’s also been a respite residents have used to get away from the city.

“For the thousands of people that come here every year, they probably have almost that many reasons that it’s important to them,” Oberhauser said.

The pioneering conservationists Aldo Leopold and John Curtis, who designed the world’s first restored prairie in 1936 in the Arboretum, envisioned making parts of the Arboretum resemble what the landscape looked like before European settlers came to Wisconsin. That meant bringing back marshes, oak savannas and prairies.

“An important goal was … restoring what had been lost, and representing all of the important natural communities that have existed in Wisconsin,” she said. “Leopold … said, ‘We need to begin to restore what we’ve lost.'”

The landscape architect John Nolen was the first to suggest, as part of a 1911 report titled “Madison: A Model City,” that Madison should have an arboretum.

The standard idea then was for such an institution to be a “zoo for trees,” Miller said.

Michael Olbrich and the Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive Association then pushed the project forward in the mid-1920s until Olbrich’s death in 1929.

Olbrich was influenced by Nolen, Miller said, who also wanted to have a wildlife sanctuary, protection for American Indian sites and natural Wisconsin landscapes.

Since the first parcels of land were purchased for the Arboretum in 1932, it has expanded to occupy 1,200 acres along Wingra Creek, Fish Hatchery Road, Seminole Highway and the Beltline.

Recognition on the National Register of Historic places cements the Arboretum’s place in history, Oberhauser said.

“This recognition connects us to our past, but also it connects us to our future because what we’re doing here now is both preserving and supporting all of the work that came before us, but also moving it forward,” she said.

Miller is now working on nominating the Arboretum for a National Historic Landmark, a more exclusive distinction that would come with greater protections.

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