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Contact information
For information on State Natural Areas, contact:
Thomas Meyer
Natural areas conservation biologist

Program information and history

Prior to European settlement, Wisconsin contained a mosaic of natural communities, ranging from prairies and oak savannas in the south, to pine forests and boggy wetlands in the north. In all, more than 75 unique types of natural communities made up Wisconsin's landscape of the early 1800s. Over the decades since intensive settlement began, the quality and extent of those communities have been extremely reduced by urbanization, agriculture, and industry, and by the ecological impact of fire suppression and the spread of exotic plant species. The last remaining vestiges of our native landscape are called natural areas. They harbor natural features essentially unaltered by human-caused disturbances or that have substantially recovered from disturbance over time.

Frog Lake, photo by Thomas A. Meyer

Establishment

We owe much to Wisconsin's early conservationists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including Aldo Leopold, botanists Norman Fassett and Albert Fuller and plant ecologist John Curtis who recognized the importance of natural areas and the consequences of their loss. Under their guidance, the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas was created in 1951 as the first state-sponsored natural area protection program in the nation. That first board evolved into today's State Natural Areas (SNA) Program.

The process to establish a SNA begins with the evaluation of a site identified through field inventories conducted by DNR ecologists. Assessments take into account a site's overall quality and diversity, extent of past disturbance, long-term viability, context within the greater landscape, and rarity of features on local and global scales. Sites are considered for potential SNA designation in one or more of the following categories:

  • Outstanding natural community;
  • Critical habitat for rare species;
  • Ecological benchmark area;
  • Significant geological or archaeological feature; and/or
  • Exceptional site for natural area research and education.

State Natural Area Establishment Criteria [PDF]

Laws establishing the state natural areas program are found in Wis. Stats. Chapter 23 [exit DNR].

Protection

The SNA Program owes much of its success to agreements with partners like The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, conservation organizations and county governments. High priority sites on private land are often acquired by partners and help fill gaps in the natural area system.

Site protection is accomplished by several means, including land acquisition from willing sellers, donations, conservation easements and cooperative agreements. Sites on existing DNR-owned lands, such as state parks and wildlife areas, are established through the master planning process. Areas owned by other government agencies, educational institutions and private conservation organizations are brought into the natural area system by formal agreements between the DNR and the landowner.

Once secured by purchase or agreement, sites are formally "designated" as SNAs and become part of the natural area system. Designation confers a significant level of land protection through state statutes, administrative rules, and guidelines. A higher level of protection is afforded by legal "dedication" of SNAs through Articles of Dedication, a special kind of perpetual conservation easement.

Our future may well depend on the preservation of biological diversity such as that protected in SNAs. Protected natural communities and their thousands of plant and animal species are irreplaceable genetic reservoirs of potential benefit to humans and are important in their own right. SNAs are vital to scientific research because they provide some of the best examples of natural processes acting over time with minimal human interference. They are valuable benchmarks against which we can judge the impact of our society on Wisconsin's natural landscape.

Management and use

Management

Land stewardship is guided by principles of ecosystem management. For some SNAs, the best management prescription is to "let nature take its course" and allow natural processes and their subsequent effects, to proceed without constraint. However, some processes, such as the encroachment of woody vegetation and the spread of invasive and exotic plant species, threaten the biological integrity of many SNAs. These sites require hands-on management and, in some cases, the reintroduction of natural functions -- such as prairie fire -- that are essentially absent from the landscape.

Use

Public use of SNAs is channeled in two directions: scientific research and compatible recreation. Natural areas serve as excellent outdoor laboratories for environmental education and formal research on natural communities and their component species. A permit issued by the DNR is required to conduct studies or collect specimens on SNAs. Natural areas are not appropriate for intensive recreation such as camping or mountain biking, but they can accommodate low-impact activities such as hiking, bird watching and nature study. As such, many SNAs contain few or no amenities such as parking areas, restrooms, or maintained trails.

Rules

Visitation guidelines

Guidelines for visiting

The good majority of SNAs are isolated and have few or no facilities. Some SNAs have vehicle access lanes or parking lots, but their accessibility may vary depending on weather conditions. Parking lots and lanes are not plowed during winter. Hiking trails may be nonexistent or consist of undeveloped footpaths. A GPS unit or compass and detailed topographic map are useful tools for exploring larger SNAs.

Guideline Description
Camping Camping and fires are generally not permitted. However, some SNAs within our state forests allow for primitive camping. Check with the state forest for details.
Climbing Rock climbing and rappelling are prohibited, except at East Bluff and Dalles of the St. Croix SNAs.
Collecting Do not collect animals, fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood, or any other natural material, alive or dead.
Drones Drone use over DNR-owned SNAs is prohibited unless authorized by a State Natural Area permit. [PDF]
Geocaching Geocaching is not permitted. Earthcaching and virtual caching, in which a container is not hidden on the property, is permitted. The procedure for a virtual cache on an SNA is:

1. Record the coordinates of the location to be used in the SNA. Also record the name of the SNA, a description of the area, the type of cache, and if it is a "virtual" stage of a multi-cache, the proposed question to answer.
2. Submit this information to the DNR Endangered Resources staff for review. Send to:
Thomas Meyer
DNR
PO Box 7921
Madison WI 53707
3. Upon approval from the Thomas Meyer, DNR, submit the Geocache Notification Form to him (contact information above) and he will follow up with the appropriate DNR land manager for the cache placement. Thomas will then forward the completed Geocache Notification Form to the appropriate land manager.
4. If this is a multi-cache or offset cache, the physical geocache container can be placed. Be sure any containers or waypoint tags are outside of the boundaries of the SNA.
5. Submit the geocache to geocaching.com. Please be sure to include in the long description the notice that the geocache notification form has been submitted. You can find that note at: http://www.wi-geocaching.com/hiding . Also include in a "To Reviewer" note all of the information obtained in Step 1. Be sure and use the "waypoints" tool to enter the information for other stages if it is a multi-cache.
Horses Horseback riding is generally prohibited except on established trails, as posted, within certain state forests.
Hours Most SNAs are open to the public year-round unless otherwise noted in the SNA site descriptions or posted at the site. Most DNR-owned SNAs are also open year-round, 24 hours a day, unless they are embedded within another DNR property type such as a State Park that has specific property hours.
Hunting The vast majority of DNR-owned State Natural Areas are open to hunting in accordance with state regulations. Refer to the “Ownership” tab on individual SNA pages to determine if the SNA is owned by the DNR or by a program partner. More details may also be available under the “Access” tab on individual SNA pages. Hunting may also be allowed on SNAs owned by our partner organizations and agencies, such as The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and county forest departments. Specific rules vary depending on the partner’s policies, and some may require a special hunting permit. Refer to the “Ownership” tab on individual SNA pages to determine if the SNA is owned by a partner and contact them directly for more information on hunting on their properties. Links to partner websites are provided at the top of individual SNA pages.
Pets Pets are allowed on most DNR-owned SNAs, although they are prohibited in Parfrey's Glen. Dogs must be kept on a leash no longer than 8', unless they are being used for hunting purposes in areas that are open to hunting during the established season.
Plants Do not collect plants including seeds, roots or other parts of herbaceous plants such as wildflowers or grasses.
Research A permit is required for collecting and scientific research on SNAs. Please contact: Thomas Meyer for more information.
Vehicles Prohibited vehicles include bicycles, ATVs, aircraft and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use. Access is only by foot, skis, snowshoes and watercraft. Some trails are wheelchair accessible.
Wild edibles Edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus and watercress may be removed by hand without a permit for the purpose of personal consumption by the collector. “Edible fruits” means fleshy fruits from plants including apples, plums, pears, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, juneberries and strawberries that are harvested for human consumption. “Edible nuts” means walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns and other similar nuts from trees and shrubs.
Last revised: Tuesday October 03 2017