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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Research identifies problems, confirms theories and helps us ask better questions about how the world works. © Robert Queen

Building better knowledge

How science and technology help us manage resources.

Wendy McCown


Research identifies problems, confirms theories and helps us ask better questions about how the world works.

© Robert Queen
sesquicentennial logo

How nature operates || Acid rain || Mercury
Fish and ecosystem health || People research
Science for wildlife management || NEPA and WEPA still strong

When Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848, European settlers were a minor part of a vast wild landscape, but they caught up quickly. Well before the turn of the century, humans had become the dominant force of change on Wisconsin's forests, lakes, and prairies. By 1898, when Wisconsin turned fifty, land, water, trees and soil were viewed as commodities that existed for people. There was little understanding that human activities would collectively threaten the abundance and balance of our resources.

Figuring out how nature operates and how people fit in

Over time, we've come to understand the power of our presence here. We also better understand how nature works and how we fit in. Through field work, monitoring, new research techniques and technologies, we have learned a lot about how the natural world responds to different types of pollution, human activities like urban development, hunting and fishing pressure, and the methods we use to manage natural resources. This knowledge guides our practical decisions and becomes more valuable as we keep learning more. DNR staff has participated in hundreds of research projects that helped build this knowledge base. Here are a few examples:

Acid rain: legislation that works

A 1985 Wisconsin law required power utilities and other large energy users to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide. As part of the law, the utilities funded a 10-year research program to evaluate the effects of reducing those emissions. The studies showed it is important to continue using cleaner, low-sulfur fuels because:

  • Hydrology is the key to understanding which lakes are sensitive to acid rain damage. We've learned that lakes are protected from acidification by chemical buffers naturally supplied by streams and groundwater. Many lakes in northern Wisconsin are especially vulnerable to acid rain because nearly all of their water is supplied directly by rain and snow.
  • Acid rain affects aquatic organisms in complex ways. In an intensive whole-lake experiment, we found that acidification hurts some aquatic organisms by changing their food source or habitat rather than by direct toxic effects of increased acidity.
  • Sulfur dioxide reductions have worked! Acidity of both precipitation and lakes has reduced substantially since the mid-1980's. In some cases fish are successfully reproducing in these lakes for the first time in many years. So far, acidity levels are still decreasing, which suggests that acid-rain control legislation continues to benefit sensitive aquatic resources in Wisconsin.

Mercury: ultra-clean means better science, better regulations

Until the mid-1980s, scientists struggled to accurately measure very small concentrations of mercury, a toxic heavy metal, in our rivers, lakes, and rainfall. Wisconsin DNR took the lead in adapting ultra-clean sampling techniques for freshwater ecosystems. The result?

  • Much more accurate mercury data and a major change in methods and procedures used to sample freshwater systems worldwide.
  • Immediate changes in how limits are set for the amount of mercury industries and municipalities can put into our waters.
  • New techniques for collecting mercury from rainfall will allow us to distinguish how much mercury comes from within the state and how much comes from outside our borders.

Fish communities provide clues about ecosystem health

Fisheries research has progressed from studying single species to studying fish communities and how they respond to changes in their habitat. By comparing the combinations of fish species found in a stream or lake with a list of species we would expect to find in healthy waters, these "indices of biotic integrity" allow us to:

  • Estimate the health of an aquatic system.
  • Determine what's needed to improve the health of degraded waters.
  • Guide further research efforts to understand the system.
  • Monitor future changes in the lake or stream.

We now have indices for more than half the stream miles in the state and within five years we'll have indices for the rest of our waters. This method of assessing healthy aquatic systems is now used by natural resources professionals worldwide.

Sociological research: putting people back in the picture

For many years, natural resources managers focused mainly on the resources themselves – the land, air and water as well as plants and animals. Realizing that we also need to know more about the people who use our resources, Wisconsin DNR has had sociological researchers on staff since the mid-1980s to gather information through focus groups and opinion surveys. We were one of the first in the nation to conduct this type of research, now an important part of our management plans.

Today we assess regional attitudes about a wide range of outdoor issues including:

  • Commuters' willingness to use mass transit to improve air quality.
  • Northern Wisconsin citizens' values about their quality of life.
  • Recreational use and concerns in managing the state's northern forests.
  • Citizen support for alternative ways to fund conservation programs.
  • Hunters' opinions about proposed changes in hunting seasons.

Using science and high-tech tools for more effective wildlife management

The Habitat Restoration Area (HRA) program was started in 1990 to restore the grasslands and wetlands many wildlife species need to thrive. This program provides public funds to buy land, secure easements, and help property owners manage their property, mainly in the 900-square-mile Glacial HRA in east-central Wisconsin.

DNR researchers took the lead in using computer technology to make research results more useful as management plans are formed. GIS (Geographic Information System) allows us to electronically layer information about land cover, land ownership, wetlands, soils, archaeological sites, retired agricultural lands, other natural features and the populations of grassland birds living on these lands. By superimposing known habitat needs of ducks, pheasants, and grassland songbirds onto these electronic maps, the GIS programs help predict locations where habitat restoration will give the greatest benefits.

We will continue the challenge of better understanding the science of nature and human nature. The information gleaned from field work can help guide future decisions to preserve, protect and enhance our natural resources.

NEPA and WEPA still stand strong

Signed on January 1, 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its Wisconsin counterpart, signed in 1972 (WEPA), form a foundation to preserve, protect and enhance natural resources.

These brief but sweeping laws were remarkable when written more than 25 years ago, and remain completely relevant today. They are visionary expressions of where we want to be in managing natural resources. Although they're each only about three pages long, NEPA and WEPA encompass six profound objectives:

  1. Responsibility for the future.
  2. Environmental equity.
  3. Beneficial use.
  4. Historical, cultural, and biological diversity and individual liberty.
  5. Widespread prosperity.
  6. Management for quality (and for conservation).

When we take the time to think about it, we can see that we've made much progress toward achieving these objectives. The laws prescribe a method of considering ways to preserve, protect, and enhance natural resources when projects like road construction, wetland drainage, mining, bridge building, or subdivision development are planned. The broad objectives of NEPA and WEPA have become a fundamental part of the way we do business. We can see these objectives reflected in our current natural resources work, such as:

  • Ecosystem Management
  • Biodiversity
  • Quality Management
  • Environmental Indicators
  • Pollution Prevention
  • Trends Analysis
  • Land Use
  • Partnerships
  • Environmental Justice
  • Sustainability
  • Comparative Risk

NEPA and WEPA also provide a solid legal basis for the breadth of activities natural resource managers undertake. These laws mandate that agencies consider a wide range of factors and open their work to public scrutiny as alternatives are debated about projects that could significantly alter the environment.

Were the laws ahead of their time? Our everyday practices are much closer to the fundamental tenets of these laws than it was when they were written. More than 25 years later, these principles still stand as strong foundations for our work. NEPA and WEPA provide guideposts for continued progress that supports sound natural resources management today and for future generations.

Wendy McCown works with DNR's Bureau of Integrated Science Services.