'We don't want it to be a secret anymore': UWM at Waukesha Field Station is a hidden treasure

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OCCONOMOWOC, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Nestled away in quiet Lake Country, the UWM at Waukesha Field Station acts as a nature sanctuary for students and community members alike. Open to the public with 3.5-miles of hiking trails, a historic kiln, an over 200-year-old oak tree and so much more, those in charge of the field station hope the public will take notice.

"When people talk about this place, they say it's the best kept secret in the area," said Teresa Schueller, an associate professor at UWM at Waukesha and director of the field station. "We don't want it to be a secret anymore."

Donated to the university in the late 1960s, the field station has been transformed from abandoned farmland to an ecological sanctuary thanks to the work of the station's former director and current Emeritus Professor of Biology at UWM-Waukesha, Marlin Johnson.

"I wanted to bring a little bit of northern Wisconsin to southern Wisconsin," Johnson said. "As you drive in, you see all these pine trees. They were all planted by hand. It maximizes the teaching value by having all of these different communities that are available."

Johnson is officially listed as a volunteer at the field station. He lives on the property in a house that was built in 1844. Over the past 50 years, he's helped revitalize the property and the prairie that makes up so much of it.

"The last crop was taken off in 1966, so it was all abandoned land and turned into weeks," Johnson said. "There were ten-feet tall thistles that were just overwhelming."

Johnson, along with the help of students and volunteers, would use prairie seeds found near the railroad tracks that used to run through the property and plant a plot at a time.

"I just plot along every year we do the same thing. We plant some more, collect some seeds year after year after year we do the same thing," Johnson said, indicating he never expected the land to reach the beauty it has today. "I never really stood back, finally finished it, and looked at it and said, 'Wow this really turned out to be something.'"

Schueller is hopeful the property can be used for more than just its beauty; an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. It's used as an education tool for the campus' science, art, philosophy and English departments. Along with college-aged educational courses, Schueller hopes more K-12 kids will have the opportunity to learn all about nature and what it has to offer at the field station.

"I would like to get young people involved and fall in love with this place and fall in love with ecology" Schueller said. "Maybe they would become ecologists when they grow up, or good environmental citizens when they grow up. Not everybody has to be an ecologist or a scientist but everybody should care."

Johnson agrees, saying kids need to reconnect with nature.

"They've got to know mud puddles; they've got to know the sting of a wasp and stuff like that. It's just part of their education, I think," Johnson said. "It's so important to the environment of the future that they understand it and care about it."

Along with its use for educational purposes, Johnson says photographers and artists will make use of the beauty the land has to offer for their professional work. For Peggy Rozga, her expertise is poetry.

"The trip out here is not pleasant. It's not fun," said Rozga, who travels to the field station often from her home in Milwaukee County. "There's big trucks; there's cars that drive too fast. Then, once you get here and once you make that turn to the farm house and the green house and the picnic tables, it's so calm."

Rozga was hired to join the UWM at Waukesha faculty years ago, when her husband was dying from brain cancer. She used the field station, not only as a resource for her teaching, but her own well-being.

"The peace that you find here is badly needed," Rozga said. "I think this place does not erase the tragedies, the injustices of the world, but this place says there is more to this world than injustice. It is one of my favorite places in the whole world."

Schueller hopes others will find that same sense of appreciation and beauty.

"We have this beautiful habitat and we have this beautiful landscape and we want more people to come in and enjoy," Schueller said. "We also want people to use it as a learning place and do research and just learn about the environment."

More information on the UWM at Waukesha Field Station can be found HERE.

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