Easements secured through Stewardship will add four more segments to the Ice Age Trail.
Big dividends from our Stewardship investments
As Wisconsin's Stewardship program begins its third decade, here's what the fund has done for you lately.
David L. Sperling
When times were tough in the Great Depression, Will Rogers advised audiences that buying land was still a bargain because "They ain't making any more of the stuff." Thanks to continued support from the governor and the Legislature, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund continues to make that great investment by buying parcels and easements for the public that preserve some of the best the outdoors has to offer as it becomes available. Even through today's economic trials, policy makers recognized the value of public spaces, outdoor recreation and saving great places. The Stewardship Fund remains a means to set aside lands for public use and enjoyment now and into the future.
"Stewardship is our primary tool to purchase public lands and keep Wisconsin a quality place to explore outdoors, find peaceful places and sustain a rich quality of life," says Steve Miller, director of DNR's Facility and Lands Bureau. "We were given these funds to set aside outdoor spaces near our cities and people. We use it to provide public access to recreation areas. We look for opportunities to link together fragmented properties and trails. We use it to infill wild properties to protect larger spaces that animals need to thrive. We invest in improvements to maintain the quality of our parks and recreational lands," Miller adds. "As land becomes available, Stewardship provides support so our partners can move quickly to buy land or get easements on parcels that can be transferred as future public holdings for public use and perpetual management."
The Legislature bolstered that commitment by raising Stewardship bonding authority from $60 million to $86 million annually for the 10-year period that began July 1. So how is that money being invested for you as the program moves into its third decade? Here is a smattering of recent projects.
Five properties will be expanded because the nonprofit group The Conservation Fund (TCF) used Stewardship grants to buy key parcels that will be transferred to the state to augment some beautiful public properties. The Willow Flowage in Oneida County will grow by 145 acres and secure another 2,100 feet of shoreline along the Tomahawk River. The property will be open for hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing. Similarly, another 3,800 feet of river frontage will be added to the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway in Richland County in a 125-acre parcel. The frontage augments the 22,000 acres protected along the Lower Wisconsin River with Stewardship dollars since the program began in 1990.
Quincy Bluff and Wetlands Natural Area in Adams County will add 870 acres to a mix of bluffs, ridges, wetlands and seepage ponds that comprise this 5,000-acre state natural area co-owned by the Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. A much larger parcel of 2,616 acres will augment the Moose Lake State Natural Area in central Iron County, a forested tract just seven miles west of Mercer. The tract includes 200 acres with the largest block of old-growth forest remaining in Wisconsin with towering hemlocks and broad, true muskeg habitat. The parcels adjoin the Iron County forestland and the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage providing an unbroken landscape that is managed for timber and provides great habitat for woodland warblers and the American marten. The last piece of this transaction, the Central Wisconsin Grasslands Conservation Area in Portage County, will add 883 acres to provide added security for greater prairie chickens and other grassland birds that inhabit the region.
Some of the great spaces that Stewardship helps preserve are in the heart of downtowns. A Stewardship grant in the City of De Pere just south of Green Bay will provide half the cost of constructing a recreational trail and bridge that connects the Fox River State Trail and Voyageur Park to the historic lockkeeper's house at the De Pere locks. It's the first phase of a city riverwalk project that will include a fishing pier and wooden walkways for wildlife viewing. Visitors and residents will enjoy strolls from the downtown restaurants, shops and hotels along the riverway to see spawning fish, cormorants, eagles and even pelicans. The first phase includes 2,500 feet of lighted walkway and a parking lot from the Fox River Trail to the scissors bridge that spans the channel connecting Voyageur Park to Government Island. A second phase will include a walkway across the island and a fishing pier. Construction is slated to start in 2011.
A 2.8-acre project along the Milwaukee River on the east side of the city will revitalize a blighted riverfront parcel at the site of the former Melanec's Wheelhouse Restaurant. The site will provide recreational green space between housing and the river. The site is also adjacent to park system recreational trails.
Stewardship funds link the recreational routes between communities too. Portions of the 18.5-mile Sheboygan County Old Plank Road Trail with trail heads in Sheboygan, Sheboygan Falls, Plymouth and Greenbriar will be widened and repaved. Restoration with recycled asphalt uses a combination of Stewardship and federal Recreation Trails Act grants bolstered by county funds. The trail follows the historic plank road built in 1851 as a stagecoach route between Plymouth and Fond du Lac.
Several Stewardship grants in upcoming months will protect public parcels in extreme northwestern Wisconsin from development. Seventy-six acres at Houghton Point just north of Washburn on Chequamegon Bay will keep 2,100 feet of Lake Superior frontage open for public enjoyment. Great memories will be born here as hikers pass the scenic gorge at Echo Dells, small waterfalls and a series of water-carved rocky cliffs and caves. Canoeists and kayakers will find respite in a sheltered sandy cove that is also a dandy swimming beach.
To enjoy public lands, you need easy ways to reach them. A smaller project along the St. Louis River will add 61 acres to provide space for a road, parking area and trail to access and explore the 7,000 acre St. Louis and Red River Stream Bank Protection Area that lies just eight miles from downtown Superior.
A land transfer from The Conservation Fund will add more than 2,100 acres to the newly designated Totogatic Wild River project, the first wild river designated in the state in 65 years. The purchase includes seven blocks of forest and wetland properties spread over three townships in Douglas and Washburn counties. These properties, mainly upland forests with a smaller amount of lowland swampland, abut county forestland in both counties. Timber on the wooded area will still be selectively harvested and more of this wild river flowage will be open for fishing, canoeing, wild rice harvest and waterfowl hunting. Two new easements will provide access to the lands and lowland waters where there are currently no town roads abutting the properties. A generous donation of $400,000 from the Doris Duke Foundation underwrote a portion of the nearly $4 million purchase from Wausau Paper Company.
A small parcel that packs a big punch will be protected just north of River Falls along Quarry Road in southern St. Croix County. A donation from the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust using a Stewardship grant will preserve nearly 113 acres of prairie remnants, grasslands, pothole marshes and a wooded river corridor. The L-shaped parcel links a local fisheries area and the Western Prairie Habitat Restoration Area. The land provides excellent habitat to support pheasants, waterfowl and grassland birds. Ten bird species listed as threatened or endangered in the state as well as an additional 19species considered of special concern use this area. The property provides a corridor connecting the fisheries and prairie habitat projects and also contains an archaeological site that will be better protected once the property is transferred.
Another small holding southeast of DeSoto and northwest of Ferryville in Crawford County will add more than 80 acres to the Rush Creek Natural Area, an area with prairies surrounded by hardwood forests that rises to scenic bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. It's a beautiful hiking and birdwatching area that is widely used by school groups and naturalists for nature and scientific study. Turkeys, deer and ruffed grouse are hunted here too.
Stewardship funds also help patch together small parcels into broader landscapes that sustain bigger pieces of habitat and slowly build parks, recreation areas and trails as properties come to market. Here are some of the "fill-in" projects Stewardship will purchase during the next year or so.
An option on a hundred acres east of Long Lake in Sheboygan County will add to the Kettle Moraine State Forest's Northern Unit. The mix of cropland, hedgerows and wetlands will provide habitat for wild turkeys and grassland birds like bobolinks and Henslow's sparrows. The property will continue to be farmed for three years and then sharecropped for a few years. Thereafter, when the farmer retires, the property will be more intensively managed for wildlife habitat and public recreation.
Twenty-six acres south of Plymouth in central Sheboygan County will provide an access point for fishing and open up an additional 600 feet of frontage on the Onion River for public use. The Onion is an extremely popular trout stream and wild brown trout restoration work has increased trout populations more than ten-fold over the last dozen years. Management on this parcel will also provide more protection from runoff and erosion into this high quality fishery.
A 40-acre addition abutting the Lower Narrows State Natural Area in Sauk County will give property managers access to the top of property blufflands, prevent development on property adjoining the natural area and allow plant patrols to slow the spread of invasive species into the natural area. The Lower Narrows, a gorge in the Baraboo Range cut before the last Ice Age, is a scenic area containing uncommon plants like the maidenhair spleenwort, shadowy goldenrod, violet bush-clover and prairie fame-flower. Some of the showier spring ephemerals found here include rue anemone, wild geranium, bloodroot, shooting star and large-flowered bellwort.
Buying 107 acres in the Honey Creek watershed of Walworth County will allow property managers to establish permanent ground cover to reduce runoff, slow down surface water flow and stabilize stream banks along the creek.
A critical bit of habitat for one of Wisconsin's rarest plants, Fassett's locoweed, will be set aside in a 99-acre purchase in Waushara County. The shorelines of five lakes in a chain of 13 are already protected at Plainfield Tunnel Channel Lakes. This purchase adds property around Fiddle Lake and the west shore of Weymouth Lake. When these shorelands are exposed, the locoweed seeds quickly germinate, grow, flower and set seed for the next generation. The seeds of this legume with short silvery-green leaves and magenta flowers can survive flooding and inundation for many years that kill off the other competing trees and shrubs in the area. The purchase also aims to curtail trampling by people and disturbance from off-road vehicles that pose more serious threats to these sensitive plants. Restoring upland oak barrens and enhancing the lupine habitat in the area that supports Karner blue butterflies are added goals in this purchase.
Four Stewardship projects next year will secure easements to extend the Ice Age Trail, the 1,000- mile corridor that traces the edge of the last glaciation from Door County south through the Kettle Moraine to Janesville, sweeping up to Devil's Lake and toward northwestern Wisconsin. Four easements that will add trail segments this year include a 75-acre parcel in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine in Washington County, 108 acres adjacent to the Village of Slinger in Washington County, 280 acres called the Scattered Forests Lands in the Town of Easton in Marathon County, and 210 acres in the Town of Harrison (also in Marathon County).
The Stewardship program has also been a boon for improving and maintaining quality facilities at our state parks. Here are just a few examples from the last two years of improvements to the park and trail system that draws more than 14million visits annually.
The Badger State Trail spans nearly 50 miles on an old railroad grade from Madison to the Illinois state line. The southern 33 miles opened in 2008 after major resurfacing sponsored by Stewardship. The quarter-mile-long Exeter Tunnel, midway between Madison and the Illinois line was also restored with Stewardship funds. Further, the seven-mile segment through Fitchburg, just south of Madison, is expected to open this month (also paid for by Stewardship and an 80 percent grant from federal transportation funds). At its northern end, this bike trail links to the Capital City trails, east to the Glacial Drumlin Trail and west to the Military Ridge Trail. At its southern terminus, it links to the Grand Illinois Trail System. These routes provide hundreds of miles of off-road trails for the enjoyment of bicyclists, bladers and runners alike. Planners estimate more than 300,000 people will use the completed Badger State Trail each year.
Public camping spots near cities are at a premium. The program just funded a new 73-unit campground at Harrington Beach State Park in Ozaukee County. The popular park just north of Milwaukee along Highway 43 offers a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline for relaxation. The new campground has modern restrooms and showers, family campsites, trails, an RV dumping station, 36 nonelectrical campsites, 30 more with electric hookups, five walk in sites, a kayak campsite and a new group camping area.
Rib Mountain State Park in Marathon County will offer new day-use facilities at one of the highest points in the state that offers scenic views of the northern landscape. This year, phase one of the restoration projects will include a wider road up the mountain and improved water and sewer services. Next year a new park entrance and visitor station will be built and subsequent work will provide picnic shelters and better foot trails.
Nearby at Council Grounds State Park in Lincoln County, Stewardship funds improved three group campgrounds that will accommodate up to 86 more people on a total of three sites. Each area can accommodate tent campers and parking, and provides sites with electrical hookups for RVs, grilling and picnic areas.
The first new state park in 20 years, Governor Thompson State Park in Marinette County, was bought 10 years ago and expanded from the former Paust Woods Lake Resort. Another 200 acres of lakefront access at Cauldron Falls Reservoir were added since the park's dedication in 2000. Day uses include hiking trails, picnic and fishing areas. Improvements will allow overnight camping use. Last year the park broke ground on a new visitors center, a boat launch and a beach area at Caldron Falls. One hundred new campsites and new restroom/shower facilities are expected to open next year, all supported by Stewardship funds.
The 32-mile Elroy-Sparta trail is a favorite for bicyclists, hikers and snowmobilers who enjoy scenic rides over waterways, through three tunnels and along the western Wisconsin countryside. The trail includes 33 bridges that were first decked and railed 40 years ago. It's time to refurbish the route. Stewardship funding will replace decking material, cross ties and rails on 11 bridges to renovate the route and provide safer surfaces to cross the waterways on the picturesque trail.
Another popular trip brings visitors to Wisconsin's northernmost state park, Big Bay in the Town of La Pointe on Madeline Island on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Most visitors access the island by taking the ferry from the City of Bayfield on the mainland to the Town of La Pointe ferry dock, which is 6.5 miles from the park. Often visitors choose bikes or mopeds to travel from the dock to the park site. Big Bay has grown from a 17-unit seasonal campground with some picnic areas and a beach to a year-round site that now hosts a 60- unit family camping area, three picnic areas, 10 miles of trails and a mile-and-a- half of sand beach. The campground has a new toilet and shower area. Naturally, there is growing interest in using these improved facilities. Separating motor traffic from the bicyclists between the dock and the park would make the journey both safer and more enjoyable for all visitors. Currently only two-thirds of the bike trail is complete. The Department of Natural Resources is seeking approval to use Stewardship funds to design and construct the two-mile segment on Hagen Road that would complete the bike trail.
Whether buying new parcels, improving recreational lands, adding to our most scenic spots or infilling public holdings, Stewardship grants continue a 20-year tradition to expand a network of outdoor places and public spaces. Here's to the new decade that will add to public enjoyment and the chance to live, work and play outdoors in Wisconsin.
David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources.