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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Parfrey's Glen – the first of Wisconsin's 333 State Natural Areas. © Thomas A. Meyer

April 2002

Persevering for preservation

The result of five decades of dedicated effort, the State Natural Areas program today conserves 333 extraordinary Wisconsin places.

Paul Matthiae


Parfrey's Glen – the first of Wisconsin's 333 State Natural Areas.

© Thomas A. Meyer
Recognizing the need for protection
An inventory of biological communities
Working on a landscape scale
Wisconsin, naturally: Exploring 150 great State Natural Areas

For four years, photographs taken at different State Natural Areas (SNA) have occupied the back cover of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Each beautiful image is accompanied by a brief description of the property and directions on how to find it.

Shame on us for not telling you more about Wisconsin's SNA program a little sooner. You see, for 50 years this special conservation initiative has sought out and protected the unusual species, habitats and landscapes that lend Wisconsin its unique natural character.

State natural areas are selected from the most pristine remaining native communities and natural features. As reservoirs of natural diversity they provide habitat for endangered and threatened species. They have special scientific and educational value as benchmarks of the presettlement landscape.

When it began, the SNA program was the first of its kind in the nation, and Elvis was just another crooner in black leather. Today, the SNA program continues to quietly go about its vital work of protecting ecologically significant lands. And as for Elvis – well, when was the last time you saw him?

Recognizing the need for protection

In the mid- to late 1800s, naturalists and scientists such as Increase Lapham and C.L. Cheney observed that intensive logging and agriculture adversely affected Wisconsin's native wildflowers and trees. These concerns went unheeded until the 1930s, when a new generation of scientists and citizens faced with devastated forests, drained wetlands and plowed-under prairies and savannas expressed concern over the loss of native vegetation.

In 1938 a group of scientists including Aldo Leopold from the University of Wisconsin and John Curtis, then a research assistant in botany at the UW, developed a plan to "conserve wild flowers as a natural resource." The intent was to convince local communities to protect patches of land to enhance the beauty of their locales. A botanical survey conducted by the State Planning Board recommended investigation of 10 geologic sites and 13 botanic sites.

In 1945 the Wisconsin Conservation Commission acted on a motion by Commissioner Aldo Leopold to establish an advisory committee of scientists – the Natural Areas Committee – to begin the process of acquiring botanical areas of particular value, by gift or purchase. Following recommendations of the new committee, the Conservation Commission purchased its first natural areas at Parfrey's Glen and Cedarburg Bog, both prized for their special geologic features and botanical attributes.

In a few years it became clear that simply acquiring properties would not be enough to protect them. State Forester C.L. Harrington was one who expressed concern over how the new natural areas should be managed. Joseph Hickey, a retired professor at the UW Department of Wildlife Ecology, related how UW scientists addressed Harrington's worries in 1950:

"Nobody had ever told him [Harrington] what 'natural areas' were for. Should they be given fire protection, opened to hunting and fishing, managed for sustained timber production, and so on? A long series of explanations were now given by soil scientists, botanists, zoologists, wildlife managers, and the like as to why they wanted primitive reference areas in their research and teaching. As the afternoon wore on, Harrington finally got the idea. 'I see what you mean,' he said slowly. 'What you are talking about are scientific areas.'"

"The scientists were not about to haggle over terms. Yes, they agreed, that's what they were talking about. Harrington then said he knew nothing about 'scientific areas' and that the Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) would need a committee of scientists to advise it on how to preserve and manage such areas."

Hickey drafted the necessary legislation with John Curtis, presented it to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Conservation. In July 1951 the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill establishing the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas. The first meeting of this group, which replaced the Natural Areas Committee, was held in November 1951 – and the first state sponsored scientific/natural areas program in the country was born.

The six-member board wasted no time. By the end of 1952, 16 scientific areas had been established; by the end of 1961, 33 sites encompassing 3,200 acres had been designated. Most of these sites were established on WCD lands because there were no funds available for purchasing private lands. Prompted by a report published by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, the Legislature authorized a much-needed budget of $36,200 in 1965-66 and $33,800 thereafter to provide staff and support for the program. In 1966 Cliff Germain was hired as the first full-time staff person and program coordinator.

Then, in 1967, Wisconsin's government was reorganized and the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas became the Scientific Areas Preservation Council, and changed its role from an independent board to an advisory body to the newly formed Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The change diminished the council's political influence and legislative authority, but expanded its working relationship with the new DNR.

An inventory of biological communities

Preserving rare plants and animals was an admirable goal, but many realized the council's work would also need to encompass a complete set of terrestrial and aquatic communities. To accomplish this formidable task, Germain and the council needed a system to find the best remaining examples of natural communities in pre-European settlement condition. To locate these treasures, in 1969 a pilot program natural areas by county was initiated in Dane County. Designed to locate and rank these best remaining examples, the inventory recorded the site's geology and soils, vegetation and animals, unique habitat, and more. It marked the beginning of systematic, county-by-county natural area inventories in Wisconsin and around the country.

The first round of inventories was completed in 1983; however, inventories are never complete and continue today with close focus on special needs and concerns. The re-inventory of counties 10 or more years later confirmed the worse fears of staff – the highest quality sites were being lost at a rate of 10 percent or more every 10 years to development, wetland drainage or timber harvest. The inventory ranking system focused efforts to preserve the most ecologically significant sites statewide.

The inventory also assists local governments protecting important resources. Many of these lesser-ranked areas have found their way into parks and greenbelts.

A cooperative breeding bird census initiated on selected scientific areas assisted by the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology complemented the county inventories. During the 1980s, coordination for the census shifted to the Scientific Areas program and, the continued cooperation of state birders expanded. This census provides vital information on the presence of rare species, their ecological requirements, and management methods essential to assuring their survival.

By 1971 the council had designated 81 scientific areas. While most of the sites were located on DNR properties, a number were on private lands, other government or agency holdings and conservation organization land. Developing strong partnerships was crucial to preserving areas threatened with loss or alteration. Today, 36 partners – including county and municipal governments, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and organizations such as The Ridges Sanctuary, Audubon Society, and nature centers – have designated 115 Scientific (and later Natural) Areas on their lands.

Among the many partners, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has played a strategic role in the overall success of the Scientific/Natural Areas program. TNC has designated and dedicated many of its own areas and helped the Department of Natural Resources acquire many others.

To stem the continued loss of ecologically significant private lands, especially in southern Wisconsin, the council received $50,000 a year in land acquisition funds from the State Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP) in 1972.

Since 180 scientific areas had been established by the early 1980s. More state and federal funds were becoming available for land acquisition; in 1983, nearly $900,000 was committed to take options on 1,000 acres.

As more new properties were acquired, the old concern surfaced again: How best to manage scientific areas? Due to the lack of operating funds, management on many scientific areas had been spotty and was often conducted with the help of volunteers. Those contributions continue today, but this approach alone didn't assure follow-up management. A prairie once burned to control invading brush and trees would soon be overgrown again.

SNA's require regular maintenance to remove invasive species and encourage new growth of native plants. © Thomas A. Meyer
SNA's require regular maintenance to remove invasive species and encourage new growth of native plants.

© Thomas A. Meyer

To guide future growth, the council developed the Scientific Area Long Range Plan in 1983. The plan recognized the need to emphasize management, acquire more baseline data, and foster research and educational uses. Comprehensive management plans were developed and implemented for each area in cooperation with the site property manager.

In 1985, urged by TNC, the Legislature passed the Natural Heritage Act. This act established the Natural Heritage Inventory program as a section within DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources, and created a much stronger system for permanently protecting Scientific Areas, which would now be called State Natural Areas (SNA). Permanent protection of qualified SNAs could now be accomplished by legal dedication. Articles of Dedication provide protection in perpetuity for natural area use and may not be taken for other uses without a finding of greater public need by the Governor and the Legislature.

The act also provided funds for managing natural areas, and created the Natural Heritage Match Grant program. This grant program provides additional funds by matching, dollar for dollar, donations of cash, gifts of natural areas, or conservation easements by private individuals and organizations.

Working on a landscape scale

Up to the mid-1980s, natural area protection had been focused on saving relatively small, highly threatened remnants often isolated amid agricultural lands and rural developments. While these areas conserved plants, and to a degree native invertebrates and small animals such as birds, mice and shrews, the properties were generally too small to survive encroachment by other native and exotic species without aggressive management.

At the same time, research and inventory information pointed toward a new, more effective approach for conserving and restoring natural communities. This approach called for assessing large landscapes, which contain multiple interacting ecosystems. Working at landscape scales helps restore intervening degraded ecosystems, provides connecting corridors between remnant natural areas and addresses problems of species composition, genetic exchange, structural requirements and ecological processes or functions.

Funding limited staff ability to address both buying and managing properties at landscape scales. To alleviate this problem, the State Natural Areas program received $1.5 million a year for acquisition from the 1990 Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Another Stewardship provision – the Grants to Nonprofit Conservation Organizations – allows DNR to share the cost of acquiring land with conservation groups. The Stewardship program has been renewed, as Stewardship 2000, for another 10-year period.

The SNA program receives additional funding to support its operations and from the Endangered Resources license plate program from the Challenge Fund for Endangered Resources, which matches each dollar contributed to the Endangered Resources Fund with an additional dollar.

Through grants from private foundations, sport and conservation organizations and federal agencies, the SNA program has been able to address management issues. Approximately 150 sites are managed by brushing, exotic species control and prescribed burning. Other functions supported by increased funding include baseline data collection, creation of a native plant seed farm system in cooperation with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, funding of research crucial to natural areas management, and expanding opportunities for the public to use natural areas.

Public use of SNAs has grown steadily over the years. Approximately 50 research projects are being conducted annually, and many thousands of student hours in formal classwork occur each year on natural areas. An estimated 500,000 citizens use SNAs for nature study, photography, bird watching, hiking, and, on public lands, hunting and fishing (except where prohibited in parks or where private land conflicts may exist).

Today, 333 SNAs occupy a total of 122,000 acres. One hundred and eight SNAs have been legally dedicated. Scores of endangered and threatened species are protected on these properties – but simply protecting these small, often isolated sites isn't enough. We now know that to save species we have to save functional ecosystems, and those ecosystems are best addressed when studied and established at landscape scales of a few thousand acres to 40,000 or greater.

It won't be easy. Increasing numbers of visitors attracted to natural areas can disturb or destroy the very attributes SNAs aim to protect. Land uses surrounding SNAs can turn these protected areas into isolated islands, or counter their long-term sustainability. And more intensive management will be needed to control the spread of non-native species.

The first 50 years of Wisconsin's quest to preserve its unique natural character were spent finding the places that best exemplified the state's ecological variety. In the next 50 years, we will face the task of integrating rapidly evolving conservation biology research and inventory information into an effective protection program. The SNA program and its many partners welcome the challenge.

Paul Matthiae headed the Natural Areas Section from 1986-1998. The program's first coordinator, Cliff Germain, helped with this story.

Wisconsin, naturally:
Exploring 150 great State Natural Areas
Discover the treasures of Wisconsin's bogs, prairies, forests and fens in this new 176-page guide to 150 outstanding State Natural Areas. The perfect companion for hikers, birders and nature lovers, this heavy-duty, spiral-bound book features descriptions of the natural communities, plants and animals of each area, as well as maps and directions to each site.

It's published by the Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Endangered Resources to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the State Natural Areas Program. Proceeds from the sale of Wisconsin, naturally will be used to protect our state's natural heritage for future generations.

Due for release in summer 2002 – reserve your copy now. Cost per book is $10.00 (tax included) plus shipping ($3.00 for 1-2 books, $5.00 for 3 or more.) Please send check or money order, payable to DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources, to: Guidebook, Bureau of Endangered Resources, Wisconsin DNR, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.