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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

October 2000

Saving Wisconsin's last
great places

Communities and The Nature Conservancy work together to protect the state's natural heritage.

Cate Harrington


Wisconsin is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and diversity: remnant prairies and oak savannas in southern Wisconsin, towering conifers and wild lakes in northern Wisconsin, the sand dunes and rocky shorelines of the Great Lakes, and much more.

John Steinbeck recognized this in his 1962 book, Travels With Charley, when he said, "I had never been to Wisconsin, but all my life I had heard about it. . .why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, or its variety of field and hill, forest, lake? I never saw a country that changed so rapidly, and because I had not expected it everything I saw brought a delight."

Wisconsin's landscape inspired some of our nation's great conservation leaders, including John Muir, Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. Forty years ago, it also inspired a small group of Wisconsin citizens to form the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. United by their concern that particularly fine parcels of wild Wisconsin were disappearing to development and agriculture, 38 members of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters met on May 6, 1960, and agreed to work together to protect Wisconsin's best remaining natural areas.

"Probably everybody had a different idea in mind [about why they should form a chapter of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin]," said Gene Roark, one of the chapter's founding members. "Somebody had a pet prairie or somebody had a woods that was full of trilliums in the spring. There were as many ideas as there were people to begin with. But I think there was an acknowledgement and a recognition that if something wasn't done, a lot of these favorite places would disappear. Everybody there had had a favorite place disappear."

The chapter bought its first 40 acres at a small maple woods in Green County called Abraham's Woods. From there it began to acquire land throughout the state at places like the Baraboo Hills in Sauk and Columbia counties, Chiwaukee Prairie in Kenosha County, and Summerton Bog in Marquette County. The Conservancy's focus during its first 30 years was identifying and acquiring land that harbored rare species and plant communities. By the end of 1989, the organization and its supporters had protected 26,600 acres.

Protection on a landscape level

In the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) national office launched a new initiative called "Last Great Places: An Alliance for People and the Environment." By working with local communities to protect entire landscapes – not just isolated islands of biodiversity – rare species and their habitats would benefit, as would the ecosystems and natural processes like fire and flooding that keep them healthy.

The first area designated a Last Great Place in Wisconsin was the Baraboo Hills in Sauk and Columbia counties where TNC had purchased properties since the 1960s. A series of preserves – Baxter's Hollow, Hemlock Draw, Pine Hollow – already stretched across the south range of the hills under TNC management. Under the Last Great Places approach, the Conservancy began to focus on the entire 80,000-acre landscape covering the Baraboo quartzite.

Although the Baraboo Hills are located within a largely agricultural landscape, the forest covering the hills is the largest block of upland forest still standing in southern Wisconsin. It harbors more than 1,800 different kinds of plants and animals, and provides important habitat for songbirds, such as the hooded warbler, the Acadian flycatcher and theCanada warbler, which require large, unfragmented blocks of forest to breed and nest successfully. The Conservancy hopes to maintain the forest cover and expand it where possible.

Conservation on a landscape scale changed the way the Conservancy worked in places like the Baraboo Hills. The organization continued to buy land, but also recognized that conserving a large landscape meant working in partnership with private landowners, businesses, county and local governments, forestry professionals and others who live within and around the Baraboo Hills.

For instance, Ron Greenwood is a logger and the president of G.A. Greenwood Forest Products Inc. in Baraboo; his family has been in the logging business for three generations.

Last year, he sold a conservation easement on 160 acres in the Baraboo Hills to The Nature Conservancy. Conservation easements legally bind the actions of present and future owners of the property. The land stays in private ownership and the landowner continues to enjoy using the property while the Conservancy shares responsibility for protecting the property's natural values.

Greenwood wants to see his land stay in forest cover. He's working on a land management plan with the Sauk County forester and TNC to protect the natural features of the property and still allow a sustainable timber harvest.

Greenwood says some of the best red oak in Wisconsin grows in the Baraboo Hills, but it's getting harder to find timber there these days. There's more competition from bigger mills up north and there's less forested land in the hills with each passing year, mainly due to development.

"The older folks in the area don't want to see their land developed," says Greenwood. "But it's hard with the higher taxes for them to hang onto it. That's why they're turning to The Nature Conservancy to put easements on the land."

The Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources provide forest planning, management information and resources to private landowners who want to continue to own and manage forested land in the hills. The organization also provided technical assistance to Sauk County's 20/20 land use planning process. The plan, approved in February 1999, includes important new tools to manage growth in the county, including a program to purchase development rights.

Where the prairie thrives again

Just down the road from the Baraboo Hills, near Spring Green on the Wisconsin River, The Nature Conservancy is working with landowners to protect a very different ecosystem. Sometimes referred to as the "Wisconsin Desert," the Spring Green Preserve is one of the region's finest examples of dry sand prairie that grades into a dry lime prairie on steep dolomite cliffs. Inhabited by cacti, a few lizards and covered with sand dunes and prairie grasses, the preserve recalls the desert land of the American West. The preserve is also a State Natural Area.

The Spring Green Preserve harbors some of Wisconsin's rarest plant communities, including sand prairie dry bluff prairie, and black oak barrens. All of these communities, which once covered thousands of acres in the state, are now almost completely gone. They continue to thrive at Spring Green Preserve thanks to the foresight and long-time stewardship of landowners like Duane Paull and his family.

Paull's family has owned land in the Spring Green area since 1890. His grandfather was a farmer and used the land for pasture until some time in the 1950s. Since then, it has been allowed to revert to prairie and is covered with prickly pear cactus and little bluestem grass.

Paull credits conservation of the area to his mother: "Being a farm girl, mother loved birds and nature, and she really loved that bluff." When faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison contacted Mrs. Paull about her land at Spring Green in the 1960s, she allowed them to do a biological study and inventory the bluff prairie vegetation.

In the 1980s, the Conservancy contacted Duane Paull and his sister, Edna Davies, who had inherited the property from their mother, about buying the land. The family wasn't interested in selling but agreed to enter into a management agreement with the Conservancy. Today TNC manages the prairie to preserve its natural features.

Since 1983 the Conservancy and DNR's Natural Areas Program have been removing invasive red cedars from the bluffs at Spring Green Preserve. When not held in check by wildfires or prescribed fires, red cedar can be an aggressive species that shades out native plants. With fewer red cedars, the dry bluff prairie plant community can flourish, increasing habitat for pocket gophers, wolf spiders, meadowlarks, migrating raptors and other wildlife species.

Saving the sloughs

During its first three decades in Wisconsin, The Nature Conservancy concentrated most of its efforts in the southern part of the state, but that changed significantly in the 1990s. In 1993 the organization opened an office in Ashland and began to work with tribal, state and local governments, and other conservation partners to protect significant natural areas in the Chequamegon Bay watershed on Lake Superior.

One area of focus has been the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs – 16,000 acres of wild rice, wetlands, streams and open water – at the eastern end of Chequamegon Bay. The sloughs are the largest, healthiest, estuary system remaining in the upper Great Lakes region.

A 700,000-acre watershed that reaches across much of Ashland County and portions of Bayfield and Iron counties feeds the sloughs. This watershed harbors 72 rare and endangered plants and animals, 28 different plant communities, and an intact forest community important to many migratory and breeding neotropical songbirds.

The diversity and health of the sloughs depend on the quality and quantity of water that enters from the greater watershed. In turn, it is the high water quality filtering through the sloughs into Chequamegon Bay that makes the bay valuable to by anglers, boaters, bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.

In 1997, The Nature Conservancy purchased 1,043 acres near Mellen, in Ashland County, from the Georgia-Pacific Corporation. The property contains parts of three undeveloped wild lakes – Caroline Lake, Twin Lake-East and Twin Lake-West – as well as the headwaters area for the Bad River, which flows into the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs. In 1999, as part of the "Great Addition," the State of Wisconsin purchased almost all of the remaining shoreland of Caroline Lake.

The forests at the Caroline Lake Preserve have a long history of use as industrial forests. The land is currently enrolled in the Forest Crop Law program, and the Conservancy has applied to have it transferred into the Managed Forest Law program. A portion of the property will be dedicated as a State Natural Area.

The goal is to protect habitat for forest songbirds and other native plants and animals; protect water quality in the lakes, streams, and wetlands; and encourage old-growth forest in some areas. The Conservancy staff believes this can be done even as parts of the property are harvested to comply with the Managed Forest Law program.

"We look at the acquisition of the land at Caroline Lake as an opportunity to demonstrate how landowners can manage their forests in a way that protects the ecological values and still provide them with long-term income," said Nancy Braker, the organization's director of science and stewardship. "In the next few years, we will begin selectively harvesting trees at Caroline Lake and encouraging growth of white pine, hemlock and other desired species. We hope to share what we learn with our neighbors and others in the watershed who also want to manage their forest lands for both ecological and economic values."

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Forty years ago, the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy was started by men and women who cared about the special natural places that make Wisconsin such a great place to live. Today the organization's members, donors, partners, volunteers and staff continue the work they began.

"If the Conservancy can be successful anywhere in the United States, it's in Wisconsin," says Nature Conservancy State Director Mary Jean Huston. "There is a strong conservation ethic here. People love this landscape and want to keep it the way it is for the future."

Cate Harrington is Director of Communications and Outreach for the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy in Madison.