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State Natural AreasCelebrating 40 years of protecting Wisconsin's natural heritage

Listen to WPR

Listen to Thomas Meyer, a conservation biologist with DNR's State Natural Areas program, on The Larry Meiller Show live from 11-11:45 Sept. 26 on these WPR Ideas Network stations or online. If you miss the show, you can still listen to the archives

Comeback Champ

The rare eastern prairie fringed orchid thrives near Lake Koshkonong thanks to Penelope and Gary Shackelford of Milton.

The rare eastern prairie fringed orchid thrives near Lake Koshkonong thanks to Penelope and Gary Shackelford of Milton

In 2004, Penelope and Gary Shackelford of Milton donated a conservation easement to the people of Wisconsin on 376 acres of their property near Lake Koshkonong in Rock County. This land, containing wetlands, prairies, and oak savanna, is now designated by DNR as the Fair Meadows State Natural Area. It protects rare species of plants and animals including the osprey, purple milkweed, Blanding's turtle, and cerulean warbler. Fair Meadows also harbors one of Wisconsin's largest populations of the rare and beautiful Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid, a species listed as state and federally threatened. The orchid is thriving on their land thanks to Gary and Penny's work to protect and restore its habitat.

Get involved

There are many opportunities for citizens to support conservation of Wisconsin's State Natural Areas.

Caring for our natural heritage

At statehood, Wisconsin was a mosaic of rolling prairies and oak savannas in the south, barrens and sand hills in its mid-section, and pine forests and boggy wetlands in the north. Wisconsin preserves the best of these natural communities remaining on the landscape through our State Natural Areas. These designated areas are a link to our past and a cornerstone for efforts to protect native plants and animals on our endangered species list, and to return them to our skies, land and waters. Ninety percent of our endangered plant species and 75 percent of our endangered animal species live on these sites, which are often their last refuges.

Together forever

Wisconsin was the first in the nation to start a natural area protection program and we now protect more treasured sites than any other state. Our success reflects the public-private partnership behind the program: 51 other agencies and organizations have designated State Natural Areas on their own lands. Partners include the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, county forest and park departments, and a host of other land trusts and local agencies. The designated areas are protected in perpetuity through a special kind of agreement.

Explore State Natural Areas

Whether you crave adventure, quiet contemplation, or the chance to travel back in time, State Natural Areas offer all three. Most are open for public visits, but note that most areas are primitive and have few or no facilities and undeveloped footpaths.

Read more

Enjoy learning more about State Natural Areas in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine. Check out the stories below:

State Natural Area logo

Fast Facts

  • Wisconsin has the nation's largest and oldest natural areas protection program.
  • 653 designated State Natural Areas safeguard 358,000 acres of land and water.
  • Fully one-third of State Natural Areas are on land owned by partners.
  • 90 percent of Wisconsin's endangered plant species and 75 percent of our endangered animal species live on these sites.
  • In addition to protecting the best of the best and providing habitat for rare plants and animals, Wisconsin's State Natural Areas program seeks to preserve significant examples of Wisconsin's unique geology.
  • The program's goals include ensuring the conservation of Wisconsin's natural diversity, providing ecological benchmarks, and providing opportunities for research, environmental education, and nature-based recreation.
  • The Natural Areas Preservation Council, an independently appointed, 11-member body created by state law in 1951, advises DNR about the establishment, protection and management of State Natural Areas.
  • DNR's approach to protecting Wisconsin's best remaining prairies, forests, and wetlands has evolved greatly over the past six decades to focus today on preserving larger sites that capture a mosaic of natural communities and species habitats, and are less vulnerable to outside influence than small isolated tracks.

Giving help when nature needs a hand

For some State Natural Areas, allowing natural processes to play out works best. Most, however, require the re-introduction of natural processes such as fire or the suppression of new threats such as invasive honeysuckle, garlic mustard and buckthorn. SNA land managers use a variety of funding sources, including many grants, to conduct prescribed burns, remove invasive species, carry out site restoration, and maintain fences, boundary signs and parking lots. Inadequate funding continues to be a chronic problem.