Wetlands, woodlands, and an interdisciplinary approach

Alumnus continues to be inspired by Nelson Institute experience decades after graduation

June 29, 2020

Land Resources Master’s program, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (1978)

Thesis titled: Applications of Digitized Film Analysis and Perceptions of Possible Users

Throughout his career, Nelson Institute alumnus Warren Buchanan, has continued to pursue an interdisciplinary approach to science. A lesson he says he learned during his time as a graduate student with the Nelson Institute in the mid-1970s.

Before enrolling at the Nelson Institute, Buchanan worked as a plant ecologist from 1973 to 1976 for Nalco Environmental Sciences (a now defunct subsidiary of Nalco Chemicals).  As a first job, he felt fortunate to “be getting paid to walk in the woods and use my undergraduate degree in botany.”  But, after four years of environmental assessment work, Buchanan realized that his career opportunities were limited without an advanced degree. His environmental work also made him keenly aware of the gaps in his knowledge in many science disciplines, such as soils, water resources, air quality, and the interrelationships between the physical and biological. Grant Cottam, who along with John Curtis, invented the point-quarter technique for inventorying forest communities, was kind enough to reply to a letter of inquiry and invite Buchanan to apply to the Land Resources Program.  

“I had used his methodology during my years of doing vegetation assessments and to a young botanist like me, it was like corresponding with a rock star,” said Buchanan.

Once Buchanan was accepted to the program, he was excited to have the opportunity to take courses across many different disciplines.

“Being able to pursue an interdisciplinary curriculum and tailor it to what I wanted to know was extraordinary,” Buchanan said of how his Nelson Institute experience aided in his career.  “I took several soils courses from Gerhard Lee, Land Use Law from James MacDonald, Environmental Impact Assessment from John Ross, Ecosystems Modeling from Cal DeWitt, Regional Economics from Rodney Ericson, and just about all the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry courses that Ralph Keifer and Frank Scarpace offered. Grant Cottam (Plant Ecology) chaired and Evelyn Howell (Landscape Architecture) and Frank Scarpace (Civil and Environmental Engineering) also served on my committee and I still cherish the generous advice and critical guidance they all offered me. Being able to take courses from all these different departments gave me exactly the broad knowledge base I was hoping for.”

Following graduation from UW-Madison in 1978, Buchanan worked briefly as a Research Assistant in the Remote Sensing Lab at UW-Madison and then for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 1980 he moved to Chicago and subsequently worked 13 years in various capacities for Sargent & Lundy Engineers and then four years for Weston Solutions, an international environmental sciences and engineering company founded by Roy F. Weston, a distinguished University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus (B.S. Civil Engineering 1933 and honorary doctorate degree 1995).  While at these companies Buchanan says he utilized his interdisciplinary training to do everything from increase bike-friendly designs within cities to working as a plant ecologist doing terrestrial work for site selection. He also managed the clean-up of illegal dump sites, restored natural areas for the City of Chicago, co-authored a book with the law firm of Jenner and Block on the redevelopment of brownfields, and cooperated with the City of Chicago on its Greencorps program, a community greening program and job training program.

While he enjoyed his corporate jobs, Buchanan remained passionate about native ecosystems, a topic he had explored while a student at the Institute. So, he eventually opened his own native landscape restoration company. While he worked on several projects over the years including prairies, wetlands, shorelines, and woodlands, he views as his legacy project the design and oversight of the restoration of the Wolf Lake area in Indiana, where 1,000 acres of native plant communities were restored including floating aquatics, emergent zones, sedge meadows, and mesic sand prairies to resemble the ancient ridge and swale formations that have almost completely disappeared in this region.

“It was a really fun job and I had all the work I wanted,” said Buchanan. “It was a blessing working in the Midwest.”

When Buchanan decided to retire 12 years ago, he decided to offer his expertise as a volunteer, spending 1.5 years working for Habitat for Humanity, half of that time living in the Dominican Republic working on making land titling accessible to the general population there.  While there, he received advice and support from Dr. Margarita Gil (UW-Madison alumna, Land Resources and Law 1999) and was informed by the research of John Strasma former head of the Land Tenure Center at UW-Madison. During his time in the Dominican Republic, Buchanan was particularly proud to have been a part of a cooperative effort between the local Habitat Office and a community activist coalition that facilitated the titling of some property to a local order of nuns so that houses could be built for disadvantaged families.

In 2011, Buchanan moved to Florida where he didn’t plan on working. But, while driving around, he noticed some familiar plants and began to become interested in the flora and fauna of Florida.

“I can’t help myself,” said Buchanan. “It’s fun to gather seeds from roadsides and learn. I eventually collected and identified over 150 species of native grasses and wildflowers and attempted, with varying success, to establish them in my native gardens.”

Soon, Buchanan began contacting local leaders to discuss water-conserving landscapes in his neighborhood and together, he and Dr. Gail Hansen with the University of Florida Environmental Horticulture Department designed and installed the entryway xeriscape landscape to his subdivision, with the installation being performed by community members. Buchanan said he has enjoyed distributing seeds and native dry-land plants throughout the neighborhood.

His most recent efforts have been to author a white paper to guide his local City and County on improving the mapping of potential wetlands. Buchanan expects to soon be implementing this wetland mapping technique as a pro bono contribution to his county’s GIS system.  He hopes that the accurate identification of wetlands will lead to a reduction in wetland losses to development.

And, while Buchanan’s life and career have taken him in many directions, he says he still comes back often to the lessons he learned while at the Nelson Institute.

“We really learned that the environment is a big, complex and inter-related place and they teach you to think broadly about it,” said Buchanan. “Because of the kind environment at Nelson where everyone was collegial and the interdisciplinary teachings, I had a lot of great experiences that I was able to use to help others out.”

Photo courtesy of Warren Buchanan