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DNR honors Monroe man
Monroe's Tom Mitchell was named the Department of Natural Resources 'Volunteer Steward of the Year.' (Photo supplied by Jerry Newman)

More About Mitchell

Tom Mitchell was a starter on the 1965 Monroe High School boys basketball team that won the WIAA state tournament.

In 2013, his book "1919 Triple Homicide" was published, an account of the fatal shootings of a farmer north of Monroe, Green County Sheriff Matt Solbraa and a third person.

MADISON - A Monroe man recently named the Department of Natural Resources "Volunteer Steward of the Year' says he merely went from collecting taxes to collecting wildflower seeds.

Tom Mitchell became a prairie restoration enthusiast while employed with the Internal Revenue Service in Illinois and began volunteering at a large conservancy project near Dixon. There he learned the numerous variety of prairie plant species and the undesirable invasive ones.

After retiring, he and his wife, Jenny, returned to Monroe in 2007, and he went to work full time restoring prairies across Green, Rock and Lafayette counties.

"Seasonally, we pull weeds, cut brush and trees, collect seeds and do proscribed fires in the spring and fall, so it's year-round work," Mitchell said.

The DNR statewide volunteer award recognizes those whose commitment to managing the state natural areas helps preserve them for future generations.

Mitchell received the award on Aug. 29 at the Pleasant Valley State Natural Area in Dane County during a volunteer appreciation potluck sponsored by the DNR.

"In Tom's case, he and his friends have been collecting seed that our staff hasn't been able to do," said Jared Urban, the DNR's coordinator of the 673 natural-area sites across Wisconsin.

The DNR values the seeds Mitchell and others collect because it's the high-quality indigenous type not readily available otherwise and works well when replanting grasslands.

"If we had to pay for it, it would be quite expensive," Urban said.

Mitchell earned the volunteer award by working almost daily at natural areas either owned by the state, University of Wisconsin or Muralt Bluff, a 75-acre site in Green County owned by The Prairie Enthusiasts-Prairie Bluff Chapter, of which Mitchell is secretary.

"Tom is team oriented, he's pleasant to be around, he's one of the leaders with The Prairie Enthusiasts. ... He's not the kind of guy who is going to be controlling but is willing to press forward and get things done when needed," said Urban, who has known Mitchell since 2009.

Mitchell is an outstanding organizer and pulls people together for work days, handling the communications by email or website, said Steve Hubner, of Gratiot, also of The Prairie Enthusiasts.

"He's a hard-working guy. Everyday he's working on prairies, sometimes by himself, sometimes calling up others to see what they're doing," Hubner said.

Volunteers learn the types of prairie plants, where they prosper, how they provide food and shelter that accommodate birds and butterflies and are part of an ecosystem that included oak savannas that before European settlement once covered much of southern Wisconsin before European settlement.

That once vast ecosystem has been reduced to prairie remnants that were too steep or too rocky to plow or graze, said Mitchell. As decades passed, trees, brush and non-native plants took over making the prairies nearly unrecognizable.

The work Mitchell and others have undertaken the past years has restored acres to their native prairie condition and to what they must have looked like to the earliest settlers.

"Some of these (natural) area have unplowed sod with the kinds of flowers and grasses that have been here for thousands of years," said Mitchell, and hopefully thousands more.

The Muralt Bluff State Natural Area is a good example of a scenic area maintain by volunteers. It is located between Monticello and Albany on county highway F. The nearest cross roads are Tin Can Road and Rechsteiner, said Mitchell.

"It's a climb to the top of the bluff but you can see all the way to Blue Mounds," he said.

The efforts of volunteers are becoming especially more valuable as state support for natural areas decreases. Mitchell encouraged those interested in learning about volunteer opportunities to call him at 608-325-6228.