Improvements for nature viewing

Improving the Sutton Wilderness for wildlife

There are possibilities for improving the wilderness for what it was used for many years ago – nature observation.  Here we outline some possibilities.  These are intended to stimulate thought and discussion, and we don’t pretend to have all the answers.  For the readers information, we envision the Sutton Wilderness eventually becoming comparable in its role to the Martin Park Nature Center in Oklahoma City.  Of special interest are the rules and regulations of Martin Park.  They are not very different to what we are suggesting here for the Sutton Wilderness.

The Sutton Wilderness is not true wilderness.  What then should it be?  What is unique about it that no other location in Norman  has – at least close to the city core?  It is the only place that is somewhat natural where the public can walk.  There is no shortage of land on the outskirts of Norman where the land is somewhat “natural-ish”.  However, this land is all private property and the public cannot (legally) enter as they wish.  All of the Norman City parks are developed parks – manicured lawns that are mowed every few weeks and intended as playgrounds primarily for children.  Then there are the sports fields intended for sporting activities; these are similarly off-limits when teams are not playing on them.  In any event, both the city parks and playing fields lack any natural aspects.

Current improvements underway for the Sutton Wilderness

A project to improve signage and trails for the Sutton Wilderness has been approved and is in the process of being completed.  This activity involves producing and installing a half-dozen educational signs similar to the one below the Hospital Lake dam. It also includes a ADA paved trail to a lookout point on the upper reaches of Hospital Lake and includes a granite gravel pathway around the lake.  These are shown schematically in the figure below:

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Improvements to the Sutton Wilderness trails that are underway via a substantial grant.  The orange curve is a crushed granite trail around the main lake to minimize erosion.  The red path is an asphalt ADA-compliant trail to a lookout over the upper part of Hospital Lake.  The small orange rectangle is an enlargement to the current parking lot (schematically shown here, adding an extra 18 spaces).

 

The current Sutton Wilderness appears as below (Google Earth imagery from Sept 10th 2016) – click on the image for a larger view:

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It is the “naturalistic” setting of Sutton Wilderness that is unique among Norman’s parks.  Here we suggest some possible modifications to the Sutton Wilderness to bring it closer to its original role as a location for nature observation and education.

Some possibilities:

  1. Restricting dog walking and jogging to certain (small) parts of the Sutton Wilderness.
  2. Closing off certain trails
  3. Mowing only parts of the prairies each year
  4. Carry out prescribed burns to supplement mowing
  5. Consider limited grazing by cattle in temporary fenced-in enclosures
  6. Establish nature trails with signs
  7. Establish one or more bird blinds
  8. Establish turtle logs and underwater debris for improved turtle basking and fish habitat.
  9. Establish a boardwalk (for nature observation) over a shallow part of the lake.
  10. Establish a small visitor center/kiosk operated by docents to provide information.
  11. Establishing a “Friends of the Sutton Wilderness” group that would clean trash, walk the trails during peak times to provide information to visitors, and generally be a force for encouraging interest in nature.
  12. Plant appropriate native plants where needed to aid native fauna
  13. Restore habitat, eroded streams and trails.
  14. Teach workshops so thepublic understands the reasons for all of the above.

Let us consider some of these in turn.

1.  Restricting jogging and dog walking to certain routes.  The image below shows one possibility for such a route (in yellow).  It preserves the most commonly used route for joggers and dog walkers – except for a modification putting this track into the grassland instead of the forest on the north side of the main lake.  Just one of many possibilities.

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Possible trail for walking dogs or jogging in yellow.  Many variants are possible.

Having recently visited Australia we were impressed how Australians prohibit dogs in any National Park (not even in vehicles!) and in most other parks as well – because of their adverse impact on wildlife.  Not even on a leash.

We think it is imperative to improve the signage related to the basic rules of the Wilderness.  Dogs must be on a leash!  This is widely disobeyed, in part because the lettering is small on the signs at the parking lot and there are no such signs on the south entrance (from the Soccer fields) or from the north entrance.  Reminder signs are needed at several other locations throughout the wilderness – and the important reasons why they should be on a leash.

The “pick-up your dog’s poop” items at the parking lot are good, as are the waste receptacles, but we know that not everyone uses these.  We counted more than 40 separate  “dog do’s” along or near the trail during a recent walk in the Wilderness.  We don’t have an accurate estimate of how quickly these decompose, so we can’t estimate how frequently they are deposited.  Judiciously located trash receptacles along the main trail might help, but these will then require a collection effort on the part of someone.

2.  Closing off certain trails.  We are not certain how this would be done, but signs could be posted like “management staff only” or something semi-official looking.  The idea is to produce a core-area of the Sutton Wilderness that is reserved strictly for those intent on seeing (or experiencing) nature, without the dog walking and jogging individuals.  Such core regions might be something like that shown below (red shading).

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Note that, in the figure above, the far western part of the lake is available for those wanting to fish.  However, the shallower, eastern part (which sometimes dries out) would be part of the core-reserve.  The same for the wetlands below the dam and their surroundings.  Few people currently use the latter area (interesting that a nice plaque has just been put there – where no one sees it!)

3.  Mowing select portions of the prairie each year – not mowing all of it every year.  The grasslands could be broken into subsections, perhaps like that shown below.  Then these could be mowed or burned in a semi-random pattern so that a mosaic of grassland of differing ages were produced.  There should be enough meteorological guidance in Norman to carry out small-area prescribed burns safely.  Apparently there is concern that such burns would adversely impact ground-dwelling wildlife, but such burns could be done in winter when most such wildlife (reptiles, turtles, insects) are not present on the surface.  The possibility of grazing parcels of land for short periods should be considered – there should be no shortage of cattle locally, though a movable electric fence would be needed as would continuous oversight by a volunteer group.  We suspect that such personnel could be found in Norman if the grazing period was relatively short – say a week or less.

 

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Red areas depict grassland patches in the Sutton Wilderness  that could be burned or grazed independently to obtain a mosaic of grasslands of differing ages or characteristics (grazing impact not identical to burning).

 Informational plaques

A plaque describing aspects of the wetland below the dam has very recently been installed, associated with the reconstruction of the dam.  While well done, it is not along the main walkways and is unlikely to be seen by many visitors.   We suggest additional plaques along the main trails to highlight key natural aspects of the wilderness and perhaps some historical features.  We recognize that vandalism is a concern, so signs should be robust yet relatively inexpensive and easy to replace.  (NOTE:  additional plaques are in the process of being produced. and will be installed)

In addition to the currently planned plaques, we suggest that numbered posts (of perhaps large plant tags) be installed that identify some of the dominant species of trees and shrubs present in the wilderness.  An informational pamphlet would be available online, and in printed form at the information kiosk.  This would reduce the cost of the plaques, but increase recurring costs of printing pamphlets.  Initially a single sheet might suffice to provide information about the tagged plants.

Since many visitors have smart phones it is also feasible to read about each tagged plant  on the nature trail on a nature trail webpage.  This might engage some people who otherwise would just pass by such plaques.

Bird Blinds

Many birds are understandably startled by joggers and dogs and these birds will not be found near busy paths.  A better chance of seeing birds is possible if bird blinds are constructed.  Such blinds can be very simple – made of sticks and branches that have fallen from trees or the red cedar removed from prairie areas, but should be built in such a way to obscure visitors from the wildlife.  Turtles are especially difficult to approach without a blind.

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Bullfrogs can be difficult to approach without some kind of cover, such as a blind.  A suitably designed boardwalk might include blinds to avoid scaring wary animals.

We solicit input on the location of blinds, as well as their design details.  Usually blinds are done in conjunction with feeders which might not be appropriate for the Sutton Wilderness, so it isn’t clear if blinds should be part of a plan for the wilderness.

Turtle logs

The main (Hospital) lake in the Sutton Wilderness is quite deep near the dam.  Normally turtles would bask along the dam, but turtles are usually not seen because of joggers, walkers or people fishing from the dam.   We suggest that logs be installed in the shallower parts of the lake when the water level in the dam is low.

The image below shows possible spots for large logs to be anchored to the bottom via screw anchors and rope.  The anchors would prevent the logs drifting to shore and the distance from shore might be enough to encourage turtles to bask even when people were present.  These turtle logs could be a supplement to proposed logs and other debris being added to the lake bottom for better fish habitat.  Cattails need to be encouraged in Hospital Lake; the reasons for their absence are unclear.

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Possible turtle log positions (this is shallow water and logs can be anchored when the water level is low).  Many more sites are possible to develop a lake environment more amenable to wildlife.

Boardwalk

The current trail network does not go everywhere in the Sutton Wilderness, though the trails sample most key habitats.  Establishing a boardwalk that goes across a portion of the upper lake might be considered.  Such a boardwalk might be similar to one that is part of William Morgan Park in west Norman (north of Robinson and just east of 36th St NW).

A nature kiosk or visitor’s center

There is a current source of information for visitors to the Sutton Wilderness located next to the parking lot off of Sooner Rd.  This kiosk has a map of the wilderness and lists (with photos) of some of the more common plants and animals to be seen there.  This is a good first step.  However, it doesn’t engage the visitor, and even a single volunteer could do much to stimulate interest or awareness of what might be visible on a particular day or during a season.  It should be feasible to establish a volunteer staff that could cover the busiest times of the week.  With sufficient volunteers, it should be possible to walk the trails to point out interesting items to visitors, and to provide a very low-grade passive security (may not be needed).  All a volunteer would need is a shirt identifying them as such, a field guide or two (many people have never seen one in this day of diminishing books) and perhaps a hand lens or something similar to point out small items of interest.  For a much more extensive nature center concept go to this website’s nature center tab.

“Friends of the Sutton Wilderness”

The main point of the above suggested additions to the Sutton Wilderness are to help the wilderness serve better in its original role as a place for experiencing and learning about nature.  In order to carry out the above activities one can either 1) wait for the City of Norman to fund the required work and provide personnel or 2) establish and organize a “Friends of the Sutton Wilderness” volunteer group to do the required work.  The second option is clearly more proactive and much more likely to be accomplished quickly.  Such a “friends” group could organize birding, insect, or plant identification outings for the public and for their mutual training, could organize clean-up days, and could, with appropriate training and approval of the city, regularly walk the main trails in a “semi-uniform” to provide reminders of what is appropriate for the wilderness or to provide nature-oriented information to visitors.  An example might be “did you see the Yellow Billed Cuckoo in the tree by the dam?” with the expectation of answering a question like “what’s that”?

Recent News:  A Facebook page for “Friends of the Sutton Urban Wilderness” has been set up.  It is here.