Prairie Moraine County Park is known for not only its segment of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail tracing the terminal moraine of the last glaciation, but also its top-ranked dog park.

With half of its 160 acres fenced in south of the City of Verona on County Hwy. PB, the park offers the largest off-leash dog exercise area in the county. Here you’ll likely find Dave Jelinski and Sadie, his quiet yet peppy Texas Heeler, exploring the trails through oak savanna, pine and meadow – sometimes twice a day.

“I get as much pleasure out of this as Sadie does,” Jelinski told the Press while walking through the park on a chilly October morning.

Two years ago under the guidance of county parks staff, Jelinski helped found the Prairie Moraine Friends (PMF) group, which is on its way to incorporating and filing for 501(c)(3) status. Several other Dane County Parks Friends groups have formed nonprofits to better serve and advocate for the parks. That includes pursuing grant opportunities and mobilizing volunteers, both of which PMF has done this year.

PMF has about 80 members, and together they have logged about 500 volunteer hours in the park to date. In addition to Dane County Parks, the group also partners with the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, Ice Age Trail Alliance, Madison Permaculture Guild, Operation Fresh Start, nearby Resurrection Lutheran Church, TailWaggers Doggy Daycare and the Verona Area Historical Society (which is investigating leper colony building remains at the park).

This fall has been a busy time for park improvements.

Fiskars sales team spent the morning of Oct. 2 clearing the understory of the pinery near the entrance of the dog park. This week, PMF volunteers will be removing more invasive species from a future pollinator prairie garden at the park, and next week, parks staff plan to plant 200 fruit trees for an edible orchard between the parking lots of the dog park and church.

“We have a saying: ‘Come for your dog and stay for yourself,’” Jelinski said. “You can enjoy the park on so many sensory levels. It’s stimulating for dogs and good physical exercise.”

Promoting volunteerism

Prairie Moraine’s dog park, voted Madison Magazine’s Best of Madison in 2019, is the most heavily used of all Dane County Parks.

Another parking lot is planned to accommodate the average of 350 human visitors per day, plus all the four-legged friends that use the park for releasing more than just energy.

One of the PMF’s first goals was to remove droppings from the trails and encourage visitors to properly pick up and dispose of their dogs’ waste, too. The first Saturday morning in April, Dane County Parks also organizes an annual dog park clean-up day to take care of messes discovered after the winter thaw.

PMF hopes that creating this sense of ownership on a basic level will grow to stronger volunteerism with its users, who are required to have annual or daily permits. Because dogs are welcome at the park but gray dogwood and other invasive species are not.

“If volunteers weren’t out here, the park would be overgrown,” Jelinski said.

He said it’s not realistic for parks staff to take care of more than 12,000 acres throughout the county with their limited capacity. That’s why Dane County Parks and the UW-Extension offer volunteer training sessions, enabling people of all experience levels to learn how to reseed prairies or snip and bag invasive seedheads, for example.

Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteers have been doing similar prairie and woodlot restoration work on the north end of the park along the Johnstown Moraine for nearly 20 years.

PMF volunteers have been assigning common naming areas of the dog park that are separated by trails or natural boundaries. Among them are “OMG” (oak maple grove), containing the park’s only sugar maples, “Betty’s Hill,” after a border collie who would get energized from the climb, and “Shady Lane,” where hundreds of savanna plant seeds will be grown in the oak understory. PMF also plans to replace invasive honeysuckle, buckthorn and gray dogwood with cool-season grasses so dogs can more easily wander the natural spaces.

While many of PMF’s volunteers help out during the week, the group would like to attract more than the typical retiree crowd by expanding workdays to weekends in 2020. Jelinski said people could bring their family and dogs while learning about plant identification and using small hand tools to improve the park they enjoy.

“It’s a process. All of these things we’re doing at the park take time, and while I probably won’t see the end result, it’s for generations to come,” Jelinski said of the volunteer efforts. “It’s a fun thing to do if you like the outdoors and want to make a difference. You don’t get immediate results, but eventually everyone will be proud of this jewel in Dane County.”

Inspiring stewardship

During Jelinski’s walk with Sadie, he was reminded of a quote by African environmentalist Baba Dioum: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

In order to foster this love for Prairie Moraine County Park, PMF is on the precipice of increasing its educational efforts next spring.

PMF was awarded a $1,500 Friends of Dane County Parks Endowment grant through the Foundation for Dane County Parks to create seasonal content with photographs and descriptions about the park’s geologic and natural resource features on an informational kiosk, which will be relocated and refurbished by parks staff.

With parks approval, Jelinski would like that kiosk to be installed atop a St. Peter’s sandstone outcropping that overlooks a section called “Jack’s Cut” and white oak trees thought to be hundreds of years old.

This area, not far from the dog park entrance, is also adjacent to a donated bench with a view near a convergence of trails forming a triangle around the future site of a colorful garden meant to attract butterflies, birds and bees.

Measuring roughly 60 feet on each side and anchored by an oak tree, highbush cranberry and Solomon’s seal, this site was selected for a public pollinator educational garden. The Dane County Environmental Council is contributing approximately $1,000 for the project to pay for mature prairie plants, a bilingual interpretive sign and its mounting frame and plant identification signage.

“It will be a potpourri of savanna plants (that you) can see, touch and smell and watch pollinators around them,” Jelinski said of the demonstration plot, which will be maintained by PMF volunteer Dan Dudovick.

Jelinski described the park as a living classroom revealing the area’s glaciated and unglaciated past. But without signage, people might not understand the significance of the viewsheds or plants while on a walk with their dog. PMF wants people to appreciate the block of ice that loomed over the area 10,000 years ago, as well as how the meltwater shaped the landscape we see today.

“The idea is to show people the relationship between those things and explain how the flora and fauna works out there when it comes to native pollinators,” he said. “Hopefully that will lead to a sense of pride to help us maintain the park.”