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A barrens is a rolling, foot-high wilderness of bracken fern, blueberries and sweetfern – a lonely landscape of horizons, hills and scattered islands of red pine, jack pine and scrub oak.
The silence of a barrens is heavy. The air seems thick. Walk a tote road through the Spread Eagle Barrens in Florence County on a summer day and you will hear only the sand under your shoes and the hiss of the wind in the ferns. When the breeze drops, you may hear scraps of sparrow song or the distant grating of a raven; nothing more.
On a winter day when the overcast sky is steel-gray around the edges the silence is even more profound. You think of moors or tundra; the Hound of the Baskervilles or a musk ox wouldn't seem out of place. Barrens stimulate the human observer by moving the skyline of trees back to the limits of vision. The casual hiker, hunter or photographer is dwarfed by space.
These natural openings in northern Wisconsin's forest are essential for wildlife. Many animal species use the barrens including the loggerhead shrike, skillet clubfoot dragonfly, northern harrier, upland sandpiper, bobcat, white-tailed deer, black bear, badger and fisher. Spread Eagle's LePage Creek has a self-sustaining population of brook trout; Sand Lake holds brook trout, too.
Of the extensive barrens that existed in Wisconsin's presettlement days, only one acre in a thousand is left, and according to the state's Natural Heritage Inventory, the Spread Eagle Barrens is the largest of only two bracken grassland barrens that remain in Wisconsin.
Coupled with the rarity of the plant community are uniquely beautiful vistas across the rolling Florence County terrain.
In February 1993, the Natural Resources Board approved the creation of the 8,500-acre Spread Eagle Barrens State Natural Area, located in far northeastern Florence County, not far from Iron Mountain, Michigan between the Wisconsin communities of Florence and Spread Eagle on Highways 2 and 141. In August 1995, the Board approved the first purchase of land for the new natural area: 3,900 acres from Florence County at a cost of $1,400,000. Governor Thompson authorized the purchase in September 1995.
Acquiring the property and agreeing on its uses was a real partnership. Florence County, the State of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Electric Power Company (WEPCO), and the Sand County Foundation, a private conservation organization, joined together to acquire the property and work out future goals. Five years of discussions and a year of negotiation led to a management plan signed by the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and the chairman of the Florence County Board.
The Department of Natural Resources continues work with WEPCO, still a major landowner within the project boundaries of the natural area, which intends to place a permanent easement on its 1,791 acres so the land will be maintained as part of the barrens community. Limited timber harvesting to restore additional native barrens plants followed by prescribed burning will maintain it. Funds to manage the barrens and other State Natural Areas come in part from purchases of Endangered Resources license plates and donations to the income tax checkoff fund.
Since the Spread Eagle Barrens is so much larger than most state natural areas, a variety of public uses can be accommodated on the land, including hunting, fishing, berry picking, and snowmobiling (on designated county trails). Car travel through the barrens is limited. Town roads provide public access. Hikers and cross-country skiers can use the less-traveled logging trails. The camping areas are primitive. Boat landings will receive some improvements. Plans are also underway to improve parking lots, build an observational platform and construct an interpretive trail on the barrens. Visitors are encouraged to stop at the Florence Natural Resources and Wild Rivers Interpretive Center five miles away in Florence to get maps and information about the Spread Eagle Barrens.
This peaceful opening in our northeastern forest is a significant addition to our natural legacy and a treasure that Wisconsin and its visitors will enjoy forever.
Dave Crehore is the public information officer for DNR's Northeast Region in Green Bay.