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Wisconsin State Natural Areas Program Sterling Barrens (No. 147)



Within Governor Knowles State Forest and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, Polk County. T36-R19W, Sections 4, 5, 31, 32. T36N-R20W, Sections 34, 35, 36. 984 acres.



Located in pitted outwash deposits laid down by glacial melt-water streams, Sterling Barrens contains a jack pine-Hill's oak dry forest interspersed with barrens openings and an extensive wetland of sedge meadow and shrub-carr. The gently rolling barrens openings are interspersed with prairie species. Dominant grasses are needle grass, three-awn grass, Indian grass, and big and little blue-stem. Several rare forbs are at or near their natural eastern range limit. Included in the natural area are the St. Croix River terrace escarpment and a reach of the St. Croix that contains an excellent diversity of aquatic species. The river is lined with bottomland hardwoods of silver maple, elm, black ash, and cottonwood with willow brush. Many dragonfly species are found in this portion of the river. The dry forest on the sandy uplands and the terrace slope is young but has a diverse groundlayer. Adjacent to the river is a sedge meadow dominated by wide-leaved sedges, prairie cord grass, marsh fern, sensitive fern, blue-joint grass, wool grass, ironweed, and Joe-pye weed. Shrub-carr areas consist primarily of willows with white meadowsweet, alder, and occasional tamarack. Low areas support stands of emergent aquatics including arrowhead, cat-tail, three-way sedge, river bulrush, hardstem bulrush, and spike rushes. Breeding bird surveys show broad winged hawk, red-eyed vireo, chestnut-sided warbler, ovenbird, and chipping sparrow as common nesters. Sterling Barrens is owned by the National Park Service and DNR. The site was originally designated a State Natural Area in 1979 and later expanded to include the St. Croix Scenic Riverway in 2002.


Driving directions

From the intersection of Highways 87 and N in Cushing, go west on 87 0.7 mile, then continue west on 250th Avenue 3 miles, then north on 280th Street 1.5 miles, then west on Evergreen Avenue 3 miles, then south on 320th Street 2.25 miles to the northeast corner of the site.


Sterling Barrens is owned by:

  • National Park Service
  • WDNR


The DNR's state natural areas program is comprised of lands owned by the state, private conservation organizations, municipalities, other governmental agencies, educational institutions and private individuals. While the majority of SNAs are open to the public, access may vary according to individual ownership policies. Public use restrictions may apply due to public safety, or to protect endangered or threatened species or unique natural features. Lands may be temporarily closed due to specific management activities. Users are encouraged to contact the landowner for more specific details.

The data shown on these maps have been obtained from various sources, and are of varying age, reliability, and resolution. The data may contain errors or omissions and should not be interpreted as a legal representation of legal ownership boundaries.


Site objectives

Manage the site as a reserve for pine barrens, sand prairie and floodplain forest, as an aquatic reserve, and as an ecological reference area. Natural processes and prescribed vegetation manipulation (see below) will determine the structure of the barrens, forest and associated wetlands. Provide opportunities for research and education on the highest quality native pine barrens and riverine natural communities.

Management approach

The native dominant tree species (primarily jack pine) are managed actively. However, some trees such as scattered northern pin oak and red pine are not harvested. After jack pine is established, thinning of the canopy and shrub control via harvest, brushing or fire may be needed to mimic natural disturbance patterns. Floodplain forest species and other communities falling within the 412-foot river zone are managed passively. Other allowable activities include control of invasive plants and animals, maintenance of existing facilities, and access to suppress wildfires. Salvage of trees after a major wind event can occur if the volume of woody material inhibits fire prescriptions.

Site-specific considerations

  • Although removal of hazardous trees from over and near trails is an allowed activity, manipulation/removal of vegetation and soil disturbance should be minimized to the extent possible.
  • Although removal of hazardous trees from over and near state-approved snowmobile trails is an allowed activity, manipulation/removal of vegetation and soil disturbance must be minimized, and must have no impact on the rare species found at the site


Management objectives and prescriptions


Very few State Natural Areas have public facilities, but nearly all are open for a variety of recreational activities as indicated below. Generally, there are no picnic areas, restrooms, or other developments. Parking lots or designated parking areas are noted on individual SNA pages and maps. Trails, if present, are typically undesignated footpaths. If a developed trail is present, it will normally be noted on the SNA map and/or under the "Access" tab. A compass and topographic map or a GPS unit are useful tools for exploring larger, isolated SNAs.

Hunting and trapping

This SNA has multiple landowners: Opportunities for hunting and trapping depend on the land owner. In general, most DNR-owned land allows hunting and trapping. Partner-owned land may have other rules (for example, university-owned lands do not allow hunting or trapping). Please contact them directly to find out about their rules for hunting and trapping. You can find a link to other owner websites under the "Resource links" heading above. More details regarding allowable uses on the non-DNR land may be found under the "Access" tab above, if available.

Allowable activities: DNR-owned land

In general, the activities listed below are allowed on all DNR-owned SNA lands. Exceptions to this list of public uses, such as SNAs closed to hunting, are noted under the "Access" tab above and posted with signs on site.

  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Cross country skiing
  • Hunting
  • Trapping

Prohibited activities: all SNAs

  • Camping and campfires
  • Collecting of animals (other than legally harvested species), non-edible fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood, or any other natural material, alive or dead. Collecting for scientific research requires a permit issued by the DNR
  • Collecting of plants including seeds, roots or other non-edible parts of herbaceous plants such as wildflowers or grasses
  • Geocaching
  • Horseback riding
  • Rock climbing
  • Vehicles, including bicycles, ATVs, aircraft, and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use

For rules governing state-owned SNAs and other state lands, please consult Chapter NR 45 Wis. Admin. Code [exit DNR]

Last revised: Friday, July 06, 2018