50th Anniversary of Earth Day and the UW-Madison Nelson Institute
Restoring Diverse Wetlands
|Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Mercedez
Kennedy has found her calling retoring wetlands and
priairies to their natural and diverse state.
“Wetlands are important to the urban environment, especially with the flooding that happened in Madison two years ago,” Kennedy said. “Wetlands are really, really
important for storing a lot of the rain and runoff that comes from those large storms. Without wetlands present in the community or the area of the flooding, then it can
cause a lot more damage to roads and people’s properties. Wetlands, prairies and other natural ecosystems do play a really big role, not just aesthetically, but they
also play an important role for preventing catastrophic damages from happening.”
Kennedy has been conducting her research in Jefferson County.
“There is a remnant prairie there that is rather large, one of the largest left in the state,” Kennedy said. “I did surveys at that prairie. They are doing prairie restoration
at the old Badger Ammunition Plant near Baraboo. A woman who was in the same program as me and graduated in December centered her research on study at that
site. But in my casual, everyday life, I take a lot of hikes and go on walks and stuff and there are a lot of different Dane County parks that have prairie restoration
areas. That is always really cool and exciting to see.”
A diversity of species, which prairies and wetlands preserve, is important to the long term stability of our fragile ecosystem.
“Diversity meaning stability is a big component of ecology today also,” Kennedy said. “One of the things that I am really interested in is one of the goals of
restoration projects and land management is to have a large amount of species diversity preventing a monoculture, which is what we call it, a big field of one type
on invasive species like cattails. Any kind of ecosystem that has been degraded to more of a monoculture, it doesn’t support the same kind of animals and insects.
It doesn’t have all of the biodiversity, not just of the plants, but also any insects, animals and critters that rely on different types of plants for different food sources or
habitat purposes. It’s always better when you have a large variety of different species.”
Prairie restoration, in some ways, is not a perfect science in that there are detailed maps of the vegetation and wildlife that existed in the prairies before the
European settlers clear cut forests and plowed over prairies to create the fields for monoculture crops like corn and wheat. And so scientists like Kennedy have to
take their cue from nature in restoring wetlands and prairies.
“Broad prairie restoration and some wetland restoration depend a lot on what kind of soil is there and what kind of moisture is in the soil,” Kennedy observed.
“Prairies range from dry prairies to wet prairies. Each kind is different and different kinds of plants grow there and different plant compositions at each different
ecosystem type. That is the first step, to get a baseline of what kind of ecosystem you are trying to restore. And then, if there is any kind of weedy, unwanted
vegetation that’s present there, you would try to get rid of that by herbiciding or doing some kind of prescribed fires. And then you feed it with whatever species you
are able to obtain. And then after you feed it, it goes through years of being continuously managed with other kind of fire and trying to control the invasive species
that will pop up over time.”
Just as some people feel that Black History Month should be celebrated and observed all year round, so too Kennedy feels that Earth Day is a year round event.
“Some people are like, ‘On Earth Day, you should plant some trees,’” Kennedy said. “I think that those types of activities shouldn’t be considered for just one day out
of the year. Personally, I spend a lot of time outside already and pay attention to a lot of different plants. Earth Day is really nice because it gets people who aren’t in
that mindset a lot of the time to think and reflect on this beautiful landscape and caring for the Earth in a way that will be beneficial to future generations.”
In addition to becoming more aware of the environment, Kennedy has also become more aware of who is negatively impacted when the environment is not
“When people are treating the Earth in a poor way or where there is a lot of pollution, it usually affects disadvantaged communities more than affluent communities,”
Kennedy emphasized. “And a lot of times, that is communities of color. My guess it has more to do with younger African American people getting involved in
environmental issues to help with communities of color that are experiencing disenfranchisement for a multitude of reasons, but also due to some environmental
pollution that happens often too. Something like that is growing out of Madison now with the airport and the possible appearance of F-35s, which are going to be a lot
louder and potentially cause more pollution in the area. And there are a lot of communities of color on the eastern side of Madison that are going to be impacted by
the F-35s. I think we have an example of that in our own community.”
It is important for people to become empowered on environmental issues. Individual action leads to change.
“I think one of the most important things to consider during the next 10 years is I really hope more people are able to realize they are able to make a difference and
don’t have the mindset that their actions won’t make a difference,” Kennedy said. “I think that is going to be one of the most important things where each person
individually does their part, whether it is taking public transportation more often, reducing meat consumption or using less garbage, things like that. Hopefully, more
people are going to realize that they have the potential to make impacts even if they are small. If a lot of people are making changes to their everyday lives, then
overall, it’s going to have a larger impact. My hope is that is what will continue to happen.”
In some ways, Kennedy sees the environmental movement as one of the arc of environmental justice. No matter what the system does, people will be moving
towards a more sustainable future.
“I think back in 2016 after the election, I remember going to the presidential website and seeing the things were up there about environmental protections being
taken off and feeling very discouraged about it,” Kennedy said. “In that regard, we’re not taking any steps forward. Hopefully people are thinking more about their
impacts on the environment and adjusting accordingly. I think the awareness might be increasing even if the head of the government is not bringing more
awareness to the issue unfortunately.”
While Kennedy is still pursuing her graduate degree, she is already working her dream job of prairie and wetland restoration.
“I work in a civil engineering firm,” Kennedy said. “Right now, one of our biggest projects is doing some restoration along the Interstate that is being expanded. My
dream job is to probably continue on with that and continue building awareness for the importance of restoring and refurbishing habitat that has been lost due to
different construction projects or mitigating for any habitat that’s going to foster endangered species. That’s really important. Mostly it’s about building awareness,
not only within my company, but also to the community so that people know what kind of impact they are actually having on native species.”
By pursuing her dream, Kennedy will allow us to dream of a more sustainable and ecologically-sound future. The arc of environmental justice continues.
By Jonathan Gramling
Mercedez Kennedy, studying prairie and wetland natural areas restoration and conservation at the UW-
Madison Nelson Institute, learned to love the prairies and wetlands of Wisconsin. While she was drawn to
the sciences growing up in suburban Chicago and majored in biology at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa
with no idea of where to go with it, she was introduced to the work her junior year.
“I got introduced to environmental related work by one of my professors and advisors,” Kennedy said. “At
that point, I didn’t realize that was something I could make a career out of. I didn’t take many
environmental classes in pursuing my undergraduate degree. By the time I was a junior becoming a
senior, I figured out it was what I actually enjoyed and it could lead somewhere. That was the reason for
enrolling in graduate school at the UW Nelson Institute and continuing my education and expanding my
knowledge in this environmental-related work.”
Wetlands are something that go relatively unappreciated by many people in our community. Especially in
the Madison area, they are everywhere surrounding the four lakes, sometimes large like the wetlands
bordering the Beltline Hwy. to small wetlands fed by small creeks and streams. And they serve to
preserve the biodiversity and health of our ecosystem along with prairies and other natural areas.