Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

[children] [beach] [deer] [kayaks] [coneflower]
The good life in Wisconsin: Clean air, clean water, natural beauty and plenty of outdoor fun.
© Deer by Stephen Lang; other images by Robert Queen

December 1997

Preserving the Good Life

How the Department of Natural Resources works with you to better Wisconsin.

  • If you fish, hunt, hike, swim, boat, or enjoy Wisconsin's scenery...
  • drink water, breathe air, flush waste, recycle or dispose of trash...
  • manufacture goods, produce electric power, cut timber, grow crops, repair autos...
  • are in fifth grade, sit on the town board or belong to a conservation group...
  • you have a relationship with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Our purpose and mission

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is Wisconsin's lead agency for protecting and improving the state's natural resources and environment for use and enjoyment today and tomorrow.

DNR employees:

  • protect the quality of Wisconsin's air, land and water, and its fisheries, wildlife and forests;
  • prevent and control pollution;
  • enforce conservation and environmental laws;
  • restore and protect habitat for fish, wildlife, plants, forests and native ecosystems;
  • maintain parks, trails, hunting grounds and other recreation areas for your enjoyment.

We want to keep you informed, give you a chance to get involved in agency activities and encourage you to take your own actions to protect Wisconsin's natural resources.

Why have a DNR?

As early Wisconsin residents found out in the previous century, natural resources have limits. DNR's duties today reflect the laws Wisconsin citizens sought over decades to protect the state's natural resources while allowing the economy to flourish.

It is the DNR's job to balance conflicting uses today so that quality natural resources are available tomorrow.

That seems like a powerful role. But in reality, you're in charge. DNR's authority comes from decisions your elected representatives make in the Legislature, Governor's office, the Natural Resources Board and the courts. Your elected officials allot the tax revenue and set the user fees to support DNR programs that benefit you.

The past shaped DNR's role today

Wisconsin's history is built on natural resources
The wood, water, fish, wildlife, plants, soil and minerals of Wisconsin sustained Native Americans for thousands of years before European explorers and fur traders began arriving in 1600s to tap those resources. For two centuries, Wisconsin remained a wild territory inhabited by native tribes and foreign fur traders based at forts on major riverways.

Settlement rapidly altered Wisconsin's landscape
As the United States pushed west in the mid-1800s, newcomers from the eastern states and other countries settled in Wisconsin. Minerals were mined, forests felled, grasslands plowed, homes built and crops grown. Rivers became major transportation routes, and fish and wildlife were heavily harvested. Trails became roads, river mouths became harbors, streams were dammed for mills, new towns sprang up and older settlements expanded, increasing the need for sanitary waste disposal and safe drinking water supplies.

Logjam in Big Lumber's heyday.
© State Historical Society

From 1870 to 1890, lumbering prospered in northern Wisconsin. A thriving heavy machinery industry was forged in southeastern Wisconsin. By the turn of the century, wheat-farming gave way to dairying, and tanning, brewing and papermaking were established.

The strain on the region's natural resources was inevitable at a time when laws were few and the finite nature of then-abundant natural resources was not well understood. Many forms of wildlife dwindled or disappeared altogether. Millions of acres of wetlands were drained, forests were reduced to acres of stumps, and native prairies disappeared. Rivers filled with soil washed from cropped land and waste from industries and communities.

Concerned public called for government intervention
By the turn of the century, Wisconsin residents began to express concern about the sharp decline in fisheries and wildlife, the loss of forests, and the need to set aside parks and other recreational land. The sentiment fueled support for state government to protect and manage the state's natural resources.

Hatching and stocking of fish began in the 1870s. Wisconsin established its first state park – Interstate at St. Croix Falls – in 1900. In 1903, a state forestry department was established. The Wisconsin Conservation Commission and Conservation Department were created in 1915, pulling together boards and commissions covering parks, fish, game, forests and law enforcement.

Recreation has been a priority for more than a century in Wisconsin.
© Robert Queen

In 1927, the Legislature created a committee to supervise water pollution control activities carried out by several state agencies, including the Conservation Commission. A private well code to protect drinking water – the nation's first – was established here in 1936.

From 1961 through 1992, Wisconsin's Outdoor Recreation Act Program acquired almost 556,000 acres of state natural resource properties at a cost of over $171 million. Since then, the Stewardship Fund has purchased more than 144,400 acres of scenic gems.

Late 1960s ushered in environmental era
The need for a comprehensive approach to complex environmental problems led lawmakers to create the Department of Natural Resources in 1967. They merged conservation, recreation, wastewater and drinking water protection functions under one agency. This allowed staff to apply more cohesive thorough strategies to reduce air pollution and hazardous wastes, protect groundwater, provide drinking water, encourage waste reduction and recycling, protect nongame and endangered species, and acquire lands for public use.

The DNR assumed further responsibilities as the federal government passed national environmental laws in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

DNR's job changes with the times
DNR employees continue to develop new approaches to solve emerging and unresolved environmental issues. We emphasize the interdependence of plants, animals, humans and the environment.

Political leaders also decided that natural resources should be managed with the same leadership structures governing health care, transportation and other societal institutions. These trends prompted a reorganization of the DNR in 1996 to prepare the agency for the 21st century.

DNR's structure
The Natural Resources Board has legal authority to set agency policy, recommend regulations for Legislative and Executive branch approval, approve property purchases and accept donations. The Board's monthly meetings are open to the public.

DNR staff in downtown Madison work with the Natural Resources Board to establish department policies and programs, administer state laws and administrative rules, distribute community grants and loans, interact with the Governor, Legislature and other government agencies, works with many interest groups, support DNR field responsibilities, and evaluate progress toward agency goals.

More than two-thirds of the DNR's workforce is assigned to field offices in five regions. Regional work is further subdivided into 23 geographic management units (GMU) whose boundaries roughly match the state's natural river basins and large waterways.

Staff in each GMU and region are responsible for defining the area's natural ecology and identifying threats to natural resources and the environment. Work teams draw expertise from many DNR disciplines and combine their efforts with county; city and town leaders; business owners; private homeowners and landowners; outdoor enthusiasts; young people and other state residents to manage public resources.

DNR organizational chart

DNR Customer Service Centers

Several DNR Customer Service Centers are located in each region. If you have questions about a natural resource or environmental matters, call the DNR service center nearest you. Customer service specialists will get you the answers you need or put you in touch with a staff person who can help.

Where DNR gets its funding

The department's largest source of funding is the Fish and Wildlife Account, derived from license fees, federal aid, hunting stamps, and excise taxes on sporting goods.

Other important funding sources include state tax revenue; fees for environmental permits; trails and campgrounds; park entrance fees; court fines; portions of the state gasoline tax; auto registration fees and tire fees.

Bonds fund public works projects and land purchases. The state Stewardship Fund has invested more than $116 million purchasing more than 144,400 acres including the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, the Chippewa Flowage, the Dells of the Wisconsin River property and the Willow Flowage.

Donations to the Endangered Resources check-off and license plate, DNR properties and programs round out the mix of funding sources.

The strength behind our strength

Natural resources remain a driving force in Wisconsin's economy and culture. Wisconsin's 5.2 million residents need safe water to drink; clean air to breathe; sanitary waste disposal; enjoyable outdoor experiences; and the spiritual renewal scenic landscapes provide.

You, your family and friends, and your community are the primary stewards of Wisconsin's natural riches. The DNR lends a hand by offering expertise and assistance, preventing and addressing conflicts in the use of Wisconsin's natural resources, and making sure people understand and comply with laws designed to protect resources from misuse.

Wisconsin's landscape and climate

Wisconsin has four distinct seasons, beautiful scenery and abundant recreational opportunities.

Except for a portion of southwestern Wisconsin, with its steep, wooded hills, narrow valleys and rushing creeks, the state's landscape has been shaped by glaciers. The last one retreated about 11,000 years ago, leaving behind many different rock and soil formations.

The state is water-rich, with the Mississippi River bordering the state on the west, and 563 miles of Great Lakes shoreline along the state's northwest and east coasts. About 15,000 lakes mark the state's interior.

Eastern hardwood forests are part of Wisconsin's biological heritage.
© Scott Neilsen

Several different North American ecological zones converge in Wisconsin – the eastern hardwood forests, Midwestern oak-savanna prairies and the northern boreal (evergreen) forest – making Wisconsin a rich biological crossroads with a diverse variety of species.

Wisconsin's Upper Midwest location also places it on the path of a major continental flyway for songbirds, waterfowl and other bird species that migrate each year to and from South America, Central America and the Gulf of Mexico.

Wisconsin Statistics


  • Total acreage: 35.7 million
  • Acres in public ownership: 5,370,353
  • Highest spot: Timm's Hill (Price County) – 1,952 feet


  • Miles of Lake Superior shoreline: 156
  • Miles of Lake Michigan shoreline: 407
  • Acres of surface waters in the Great Lakes: 6.4 million
  • Inland lakes: More than 15,000, covering a million-plus acres
  • Rivers & streams: More than 33,000 miles, of which 9,561 miles are cold-water trout streams
  • Largest inland lake: Lake Winnebago (137,708 acres)
  • Deepest inland lake: Big Green Lake (236 feet)


  • Average mean temperature: 42.9 F
  • Average precipitation: 31.79 inches


  • Top income-producing activities:
  • Agriculture
  • Forestry and forest products
  • Tourism
  • Manufacturing


  • State Parks: 55
  • Visitors: 13 million annually
  • Largest park: Devil's Lake (8,864 acres)
  • Smallest park: Copper Culture (42 acres)
  • State Forests: 10 (total of 491,970 acres)
  • Visitors: 4.5 million annually
  • State Recreation Areas: 4 (total of 8,668 acres)
  • State Trails: 25
  • Trail Pass Holders: 47,198 annually
  • Miles of State Trails surfaced for bicycling: 503
  • Campsites: 4,552
  • Acres of hunting and fishing land: 6 million

DNR Statistics

  • Boats registered in 1996: 540,349
  • Warmwater fish produced and stocked in 1996: 33,534,000
  • Warmwater fish fry and fingerlings distributed to clubs for raising in 1996: 308,000
  • Coldwater fish produced and stocked in 1996: 6,202,500
  • Top three animals harvested in 1996: Squirrels (571,699); Deer (461,732); Ducks (399,252 - from 1995)
  • Top three furbearers harvested in 1996: Muskrats (297,096); Raccoon (215,112); Beaver (24,835)
Stocking fish for hours of angling enjoyment.
© Bob Queen

The Department of Natural Resources...

  • manages 530 public hunting and fishing grounds totaling 560,000 acres
  • provides technical assistance to owners of about 20 million acres of private land
  • administers hunter education for 30,000 students a year
  • operates and maintains 14 fish hatcheries
  • responds to more than 20,000 tips regarding fishing, hunting and habitat violations each year
  • distributes about 21 million trees and shrubs from its nurseries each year
  • publishes and distributes 3.3 million fishing and hunting regulation booklets annually
  • publishes Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, with 93,000 subscribers
  • received $43.8 million from the Forest Mill Tax and $52.8 million from fishing and hunting fees in 1996-7
  • spent $68.5 million on environmental quality, $26.8 million on forestry, $22.6 million on resource acquisition and development, $16.8 million on fish management, $12.4 million on parks and $11.4 million on wildlife in 1995-96.

Badger pride in Badger accomplishments

  • First state to ban the pesticide DDT to protect birds and other wildlife (1971)
  • First state to meet fishable and swimmable water quality standards (1983)
  • First acid rain control law in the nation (1986)
  • Among the first groundwater protection laws (1984)
  • Second largest bald eagle population in the lower 48 states.
  • Largest concentration of lake sturgeon in the world
  • First wild and scenic river in the nation (the St. Croix/Namekagon) (1968)
  • Oldest Soil and Water Conservation District in the nation (Coon Valley) (1933)
  • Pulp and paper mills reduced oxygen-demanding water pollutants 91 percent between 1972-82 and reduced suspended solids by 84 percent
  • One of the nation's strongest recycling programs – 97 percent of state households participate
  • A proud tradition of buying unique parcels to preserve outdoor recreation through the ORAP and Stewardship programs
  • Consistently ranked among the finest places to hunt deer and fish.
  • More than six million acres of public hunting grounds.

You've got our number

  • Air Quality recording for southeastern Wisconsin: 1-800-242-4727; in Milwaukee, 263-8582
  • Poacher's Hotline to report fish and game violations : 1-800-TIP-WDNR (1-800-847-9367)
  • Outdoor Conditions (608) 266-2277
  • Information Desk at DNR Headquarters, Madison: (608) 266-2621; TTY Access via relay – 711

Regional offices:

  • North (Spooner): (715) 635-2101
  • North (Rhinelander): (715) 365-8900
  • Northeast: (920) 492-5800
  • South Central: (608) 275-3266
  • Southeast: (414) 263-8500
  • West Central: (715) 839-3700

DNR Home Page
Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources provides equal opportunity in its employment, programs, services and functions under an Affirmative Action Plan. Questions? Write Equal Opportunity Office, Department of the Interior, Washington DC 20240

"Preserving the Good Life" is available in print, Braille, audio cassette and large print formats upon request. To order, call (608) 266-6790 and mention the publication number: PUBL CE-230-97