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The people of Wisconsin know their prosperity is tied to the land and water; they understand that a healthy, sustainable environment is essential to the state's economy and exceptional quality of life. As we begin a new century, a Land Legacy Study will explore what kinds of lands in what locations should be protected during the next 50 years to meet conservation and recreation objectives. Where are the gaps in our existing "portfolio" of public lands? What lands and waters will be critical to conserve our plants, animals, and their habitats? What lands will we need to provide satisfying outdoor recreation? Can conservation and recreation goals be accomplished without purchasing lands outright? What do we want our landscape to look like in 2050 and what role should public lands play in reaching this goal? What lands will our children and grandchildren wish we had protected as state parks, forests, wildlife, fisheries and natural areas?
Experience shows the value in making such plans now. After more than a century of purchasing land, we have a solid foundation of public lands in the state. From the Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area to the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge, from the Marinette County Forest to Wyalusing State Park, a mix of federal, state, and local public lands provide a variety of conservation and recreation benefits.
Yet Wisconsin's landscape continually changes: our population continues to increase, we are consuming resources at an accelerating rate, society's outdoor recreational needs and desires continue to grow and change, private lands are increasingly closed to public access, and residential/second-home developments continue to spread into more remote areas. As a consequence, it's an increasing challenge for public land managers to provide lands that meet conservation needs, and also are reasonably easy to get to, not overcrowded, and provide a satisfying outdoor experience.
To begin identifying important places, public meetings and DNR staff meetings were in eight cities around the state last winter. At these meetings as well as in letters and e-mails received, participants expressed varied perspectives on what types of lands most need protection and what the DNR should consider when purchasing land for conservation and recreation purposes.
Participants felt future land purchases should:
Protect water resources One of Wisconsin's unique qualities is the number and quality of our lakes, rivers and streams. From the Great Lakes to the mighty Mississippi, from tiny spring-fed trout streams to biologically rich rivers of the southeast, Wisconsin harbors a range of exceptional waters. Participants repeatedly emphasized purchasing undeveloped or lightly developed lands along lakes, rivers and wetland as a tool to protect water quality and provide recreational opportunities.
Protect the pearls Places in Wisconsin that remain relatively wild and undisturbed from human influence should be protected before these last "pearls" are lost. Examples of pearls already in some form of protective ownership include: Crex Meadows, Chiwaukee Prairie, the Dells of the Eau Claire River, and Parfrey's Glen. In addition to these high-quality natural areas, Wisconsin has several regionally and nationally significant resources. For example, the large swath of northern forest stretching from Minnesota across Wisconsin and through Michigan's Upper Peninsula that harbors the highest diversity of breeding birds in North America. Similarly, Wisconsin plays a nationally important role in conserving oak savannas, pine and oak barrens, drumlin fields, Great Lakes shorelands, and other habitats.
Other pearls for many people are the lands and waters of exceptional scenic beauty as well as places that provide great vistas. For example, the views from Devil's Lake, Roche-A-Cri, and Whitefish Dunes state parks are, by any measure, exceptional. Similarly, long stretches of undeveloped views on the 92-mile Lower Wisconsin River draw people from great distances.
Protect the full spectrum of Wisconsin's ecosystems Many participants recognized a need to simply protect and sustain functioning natural ecosystems in each part of the state. Our public land "portfolio" needs to conserve all of our native species and habitats to prevent common species from becoming rare. For example, most of the public land in counties along the Mississippi River is low and in river valleys; only a modest amount of uplands and bluffs are publicly owned. As many people suggested, we should pass on to future generations the full range of the beautiful, bountiful natural resources that we've "inherited."
Keep public lands accessible and usable A common theme heard at every meeting: buy more land near where people live. The majority of current public land in Wisconsin is not in close proximity to our large population centers. Purchasing and restoring land close to urban centers will make it easier for people to see native plants, animals and the ecological processes that support them. Many believe one of the most important roles public lands fill is providing a place for people, particularly children, to better understand and appreciate how our natural world works. Experiences on public lands can help foster a conservation ethic and a public that values natural resources while understanding its management.
In addition to being accessible, public lands need to support desired uses. Buffers of open space surrounding public land can help minimize conflicts that result when housing developments are located next to public properties. Buffers also make a softer visual transition from developed areas to natural lands. Farmland and industrial forestland can form effective buffers and can benefit from having public property as a neighbor.
Think big Typically, larger properties enjoy many advantages over smaller ones. They are more likely to contain all of the habitat needs for a greater number of species, particularly species that require large expanses of habitat. Similarly, they can provide a greater diversity of recreational uses with fewer user conflicts and a greater sense of remoteness and tranquillity. Finally, they are easier and more economical to manage than several smaller parcels.
Connect the dots When public lands are linked together, many ecological and recreational benefits result. Corridors of natural vegetation, along rivers, or abandoned railroad rights-of-way, provide an opportunity for species to move from one area to another. Particularly in the southern part of the state where public properties are smaller and more isolated, a network of corridors would help make these properties greater than the sum of their parts. In addition to their ecological values, corridors that connect public properties can form off-road routes that are fun to travel, linking parks or wildlife areas with horse, mountain biking or hiking trails. A whole variety of day trips, weekend outings and short vacations open up as such properties are linked.
The study's next step is identifying places that best meet these general themes. Over the next month the DNR will be developing a series of maps presenting information about these themes. In January and February the DNR expects to hold public meetings to gather feedback on these maps. Do they identify the right kinds of places? Are important places missing? What are the conservation and recreation priorities in your area of the state?
Scenic vistas and quiet lakeshores are features
Public land's impact on farming
Farmers understandably worry that public purchases of farmland in their area may make it harder to find fields to rent. Similarly, companies that service farms get concerned that public land purchases reduce the numbers of customers in an area that keep their businesses viable. The DNR is committed to ensuring that its land purchases do not adversely affect the viability of farms or farm services.
DNR staff are working with agricultural organizations to determine how best to incorporate farmers' needs into the public land discussion. The DNR has long recognized that wildlife benefit when a landscape mixes agricultural lands with forests, grasslands and wetlands. In many cases, the conservation values of public lands are enhanced when surrounded by agricultural lands. So the DNR is particularly interested in ensuring that land purchases complement, not conflict with, the local farm economy. One possible solution is to purchase development rights on key farm parcels adjacent to public properties. These parcels would remain in private ownership and available to farmers while still providing a buffer from developed lands.