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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

From the June 1998 issue:

Compass plant, a prairie plant whose habitat has been greatly diminished. © Thomas A. Meyer.

Preserving the living past

State Natural Areas protect Wisconsin's natural landscape communities.

Virginia M. Kline

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"What a thousand acres of silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked." – Aldo Leopold, 1949

When renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold penned these words, Wisconsin had just celebrated its Centennial. He was lamenting the demise of a small patch of compass plant, Silphium laciniatum, a species that graced acre upon acre of Wisconsin's once vast prairies. By 1949, compass plant and its prairie habitat had been reduced to highway and railroad rights-of-way and a few unplowed back forties.

To Leopold and others, the passing of the prairie and the bison, and the destruction of native plant communities, were like erasing pages of Wisconsin's history.Aldo Leopold. © DNR Photo At the time of statehood, most of Wisconsin still looked much as it had for thousands of years – a mosaic of woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands each composed of an interconnected web of plants and animals. In short order, land conversion by plow, cow, and saw not only destroyed the web, but broke our historical connection to the natural landscape.

The variety of natural communities in the presettlement landscape was indeed impressive. In his classic book The Vegetation of Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Plant Ecologist John Curtis describes more than 30 types. Much of northern Wisconsin was covered with forests in which sugar maple and hemlock dominated the canopy, accompanied by various combinations of yellow birch, basswood, and, in counties near Lake Michigan, American beech. Often a few huge, old white pines towered above the canopy. This was the northern hardwood forest, and it covered over 11.7 million acres – more than any other community in Wisconsin.

Where the soil was dry and sandy, fires occasionally swept over the landscape, and blocks of mesic forest gave way to "islands" of pine forest. Jack pine barrens occupied the driest, most frequently burned areas. Growing with the pines were red oak, northern pin oak and aspen. While the mesic forests were very shady and had few shrubs, the pine areas were light enough to allow shrubs such as blueberry, witch hazel and hazelnut to grow.

Some wet areas in the north supported tamarack/ black spruce bogs and white cedar swamps. Others, including the sedge meadows and the open sphagnum bogs, had few trees. Orchids and other rare plants frequently occurred in these wet places.

Most of southern Wisconsin was covered with a shifting mosaic of prairie (2.1 million acres), oak savanna (7.3 million acres), and oak woods (1.4 million acres). These fire-dependent communities were not distinct, but blended into each other. They thrived on a wide variety of soils.

In contrast to northern parts of the state, the southern landscape was open and sunny with spectacular vistas.

Within the prairie/savanna mix, three large blocks of southern mesic forest grew in moister areas which burned less frequently. Sugar maple, slippery elm and basswood were the most common trees, and showy displays of spring wildflowers carpeted the forest floor. Southern mesic forest covered about 3.4 million acres.

Public concern surfaced in the 1930s in response to uncontrolled draining and filling of wetlands, plowing of prairies, grazing of savannas, and logging of forests. Protecting the remaining unspoiled areas became urgent. In 1945, the Wisconsin Conservation Commission approved a motion by Commission member Aldo Leopold to establish a Natural Areas Committee. The committee was to obtain, by gift or purchase botanical areas of special value. The committee was superseded by the State Board for the Protection of Scientific Areas and is still active today as the Natural Areas Preservation Council.

The State Natural Areas (SNA) program seeks to protect the best-remaining examples of plant and animal communities that were found in Wisconsin before statehood. The successful program has become a model for other states. As of February 1998, there were 326 SNAs encompassing more than 120,000 acres of land and water. From the Squirrel River Pines SNA in Oneida County to the Avoca Prairie SNA along the lower Wisconsin River (see back cover) , these areas preserve intact natural communities, provide refuges for many rare species of plants and animals, and are excellent outdoor laboratories for teaching and research.

Though Holsteins long ago replaced bison, there remain a few places where silphiums still grow tall and where we can share, on a smaller scale, the vistas that inspired our fellow Wisconsinites 150 years ago.

For more information on the State Natural Areas Program, write: SNA Program, Bureau of Endangered Resources, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.

About the authors

Virginia Kline of Madison recently retired as the Arboretum Ecologist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a former member of the Natural Areas Preservation Council.

Thomas Meyer of the DNR's State Natural Areas Program contributed to this story.