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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The Roe Unit of Cassville Bluffs State Natural Area. © Lawrence Roe
The Roe Unit of Cassville Bluffs State Natural Area.

© Lawrence Roe

April 2004

Saving the best of the best

The special parts of our landscape deserve special attention. They get it from the Natural Resources Foundation.

Camille Zanoni and Charlie Luthin

A place to call home | A bridge to the North
Restoring the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi
Maintaining our natural heritage
State Natural Areas (SNA) Facts | About the NRF

Beulah Bog. Brady's Bluff Prairie. Bark Bay Slough. Bloch Oxbow. St. Croix Seep. Tiffany Bottoms. Coon Fork Barrens. Poetic names for special parcels of our landscape that are unfamiliar to most Wisconsinites, yet these locales are among more than 400 protected places that harbor the state's rarest plants and animals. Together they comprise our state natural areas.

Listeria, Parnassia, Habenaria, Prenanthes, Liatris...a poetry of descriptive science, the Latin genus names of some rare plant species that find refuge in these special places. Though the 408 designated natural areas comprise less than half a percent of Wisconsin's land surface, these 162,500 acres provide habitat to sustain 60 percent of the state species that are threatened, endangered or "of special concern." This includes more than 93 percent of our rare plant species and over 80 percent of the state-endangered bird species. They are sparkling stars on the map marking natural treasures that make Wisconsin so extraordinary.

Thanks to the foresight of scientists and conservation leaders like Aldo Leopold, Norman Fassett and John Curtis in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as dedicated commitment and hard work by countless Conservation Department and DNR staff, conservation groups (especially The Nature Conservancy), and private landowners, Wisconsin has already identified and set aside an extensive mosaic of sites. Natural areas house our most spectacular examples of biological, geological and archaeological riches-- the "best of the best" of Wisconsin's landscapes.

But that work isn't done. As human populations continue to grow and communities spread over the land, wild places dwindle, becoming isolated, scarcer and more important as reservoirs that protect our native plants and animals. The system of state natural areas saves remnants of a biological history that evolved over thousands, even millions of years. And each natural area has its own story to share. Here, we highlight the human stories that led to preserving three natural areas.

A place to call home

Larry Roe is eager to share the thick binder containing a complex mix of titles to property that now form 244 acres of Mississippi River bluffs and bottomlands preserved as the Roe Unit of the Cassville Bluffs State Natural Area. Larry and his wife, Kathy, purchased their first acre of the property in 1947. The family moved around the country as Larry's employment as a mining engineer took him west, east and back to the Midwest. He never lost a love for the riverbottom country he had explored as a kid in Cassville and Kathy had known from her Platteville upbringing. Roe says that respect and love for the river country came from his folks.

"Dad could live without a car in that community, but he had to have a boat to keep exploring the river," Roe recalls.

They bought another 14 acres in the mid-fifties as they raised a family moving around the country, and then in 1968 purchased the remaining acres. The parcel is part of the only linear mile of protected Mississippi River edge in Wisconsin extending from the water's edge to the bluff top. When asked why he bought the land, his response is simply, "I always loved Cassville, and I wanted a place to call home."

Lawrence Roe. © Steve Apps, Wisconsin State Journal
Lawrence Roe: "If you want something to succeed, sometimes you have to give it away."

© Steve Apps
Wisconsin State Journal

The Roes never developed the property, save for a small, seasonal cottage and garage. Beyond some selective logging, they left it "in its natural state" so that the species residing there, such as the rare chinquapin oak, jeweled shooting star, and bald eagles, could continue to have a place to call home as well.

In 2000, Roe contacted the Department of Natural Resources and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy with the intent to sell and give away the land so that it would be preserved forever. As a result, the Roe Unit of Cassville Bluffs State Natural Area was designated in 2002. Roe explained, "If you want something to succeed, you sometimes have to give it away. This land was a primitive, undeveloped area, and I believed it should be kept that way." He looks over at his wife and smiles, "We think it was a wonderful gift; one of the best things I've done in my life. My grandma and grandpa taught me that nature is important and that some things are really worth the effort."

The Roe Unit of Cassville Bluffs is certainly one of them. The area contains a rare expanse of undeveloped bluffs, sand terraces, dry prairie and scarce chinquapin oak savanna. It preserves one of the largest eagle-shaped effigy mounds in the state. Cylindrical blazing-star, small green milkweed, compass plant and side-oats grama grass dominate the dry prairie, while fern species including rusty woodsia and smooth cliffbrake thrive on the dolomite outcroppings.

Today, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are tending to this property, restoring the prairie areas and making other improvements with financial support from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

As a Cassville native, Roe felt it was only natural to leave this little piece of paradise he savored from his youth for future generations to enjoy.

"Human beings have a natural inclination to return home," Roe said, and a part of his family will always remain on these riverside bluffs. He adds with a smile, "I love dreamers who can make their dreams come true."

A bridge to the North

The "lake effect" that brings cooler springs, milder summers and moderate winters to Door County also extends the range of northern habitats on this Wisconsin peninsula. The microclimate from the surrounding Lake Michigan and Green Bay creates a meteorological "bridge" that allows plant communities normally found in boreal forests much farther north to thrive here. The Bailey's Harbor Boreal Forest and Wetlands State Natural Area is a marvelous example of such a relict plant community. It's protected thanks to Bob and Betty Ragotzkie and friends.

"We were a bridge to save a unique ecosystem that we have right here," explains Ragotzkie describing his family and other community members. Back in the early 90s, the Ragotzkies and seven other land holders began buying small pieces of undeveloped habitat to preserve it. As a UW-Madison meteorologist and the first Director of the UW Sea Grant Institute, Professor Ragotzkie had a wide network of contacts in environmental sciences. The group met with university specialists, DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources staff, and The Nature Conservancy to identify parcels with rare natural features. Local Door County landowners acquired additional small pieces of land to form one contiguous holding. In 1995, Bailey's Harbor Boreal Forest and Wetlands became the 284th state natural area.

Balsam fir and white spruce dominate the forest in this northeastern refuge. Lower-lying wetter portions form a forest of white cedar, white pine, paper birch and hemlock. The federally threatened dwarf lake iris and rare orchids inhabit the forest understory. Uncommon species such as bird's-eye primrose, small fringed gentian and tufted hair grass tough it out on the flat, limestone shoreline. This 329-acre natural area protects 1.2 miles of shoreline, one of the largest expanses of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Wisconsin, an important spawning ground for whitefish and critical habitat for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. The area also hosts one of Wisconsin's few known nesting sites for the common goldeneye, a diving duck.

The forest and wetlands refuge is managed by the joint efforts of local conservation groups, individual volunteers, and DNR staff from the Bureau of Endangered Resources who work to curtail the spread of invasive species such as purple loosestrife and giant reed grass, Phragmites.

"The most important thing," Ragotzkie says, "is that the DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources continues to have foresight to look ahead and set aside unique and beautiful areas of our state for our children's grandchildren, and those that follow. That's the whole point of this."

The Ragotzkies followed that vision, worked out a plan with their community and donated a 17.8-acre easement to this natural area last January.

Restoring the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi

Within Waukesha County's Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the landscape is being transformed by hand and fire. Shortly after volunteers and DNR staff burn and clear off invasive brush, a host of prairie plants start emerging from the ashes.

"We're not planting them. They're just popping up in places we didn't even expect to find them," explains DNR Park Naturalist Ron Kurowski. "We call it the 'Crex Meadows effect,'" he explains, referring to the remarkable phenomenon at Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area in Burnett County, where native prairie plants dormant for decades started to naturally recover after the land was burned and cleared.

If only prairie restoration were so rewarding everywhere!

The Scuppernong River Habitat Area Project encompasses the Scuppernong Prairie and Kettle Moraine Low Prairie state natural areas near Eagle, a wetland complex of 3,500 acres. It includes a mosaic of habitats: wet mesic prairies, sedge meadows, fens, cattail marshes and oak savannas. The natural areas contain such rare flowers as purple milkweed and prairie Indian plantain, along with uncommon birds such as the bobolink and upland sandpiper. Scuppernong Prairie is also home to three rare moths and butterflies – the Poweshiek skipperling, the silphium borer moth, and the liatris borer moth.

Together, these areas contain more than 45 plant, animal and insect species designated as state-endangered, threatened, or of special concern.

Project leaders hope to connect the existing state natural areas to other prairies and oak savannas stretching from Ottawa Lake in Waukesha County to Whitewater Lake in Walworth County with wild corridors that link the properties. "Once restored, it will be the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi," Kurowski says. "If restoration efforts are successful, visitors would be able to walk a trail through two miles of contiguous native prairie."

The restoration effort, spearheaded by the Department of Natural Resources, has a list of friends as long as the prairie soil is deep. Grassroots conservation groups with help from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have raised nearly $200,000 for the project. A local friends group, the Kettle Moraine Natural History Association, has contributed $20,000 and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin has also raised needed funds.

These community groups also provide the strong backs to match their bucks. Volunteer labor is doing the muscle work to remove invasive species such as buckthorn and purple loosestrife that threaten to overwhelm native prairie species.

"It's a big job to bring these areas back to their original condition," observes Kurowski, "but it's one of the last chances to restore one of the last, big wet prairies in Wisconsin."

The team also hopes to bring back sharp-tailed grouse and other species that disappeared from these areas, and to eventually restore the water level hydrology of these sites, which was degraded through drainage ditches and stream straightening.

This could be quite a landmark site, Kurowski says. "We'll need continued community and financial support to meet our management goals and preserve these different natural landscapes. It's special, and we want to keep it that way."

Maintaining our natural heritage

Setting aside natural areas is a proud Wisconsin tradition, but it's only the first step in providing long term protection. Natural areas need to be surrounded by open spaces that can buffer the sites from external impacts like development, runoff and invasion by exotic species. Once these lands are restored, they often need continuous management to stave off unwanted species.

As human development spreads and encroaches ever deeper into rural areas, our state natural areas become increasingly important parcels for protecting remnant plant communities and rare species.

Recognizing that an ever-diminishing state budget has dramatically reduced funds available to manage the state natural areas, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is embarking on a long-term statewide campaign to raise private funds to steward these rare landscape gems. We hope to raise $100,000 this year and every year thereafter to build a $10 million endowment by 2014. This effort will help protect the last vestiges of original Wisconsin, the "living libraries" that house our rarest biological treasures. By maintaining healthy state natural areas, we hope to protect the living and human history of our state long into the future.

Camille Zanoni is program director and Charlie Luthin is the executive director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

State Natural Areas (SNA) Facts
  • Wisconsin's natural areas program is the oldest in the nation (1952) and one of the most successful, safeguarding 408 state natural areas that encompass 162,500 acres.

  • By statutory definition, SNAs are areas of land or water that have special educational or scientific value; that serve as a reservoir of the state's biological diversity; that provide habitat for rare, threatened or endangered plant and animal species; or that protect significant geological or archaeological features.

  • SNAs encompass only a half percent of the total acreage of Wisconsin, yet they protect 58 percent (520 of 900) of the state "listed" species that are threatened, endangered, or of special concern. This includes 93 percent of the state's threatened and endangered plant species (115 of 123) and 81 percent of our threatened bird species (30 of 37). Some of the finest remnants of Wisconsin's native plant communities (oak savannas, fens, prairies, wetlands, dunes and forests) are protected within our state natural areas.

The DNR Bureau of Endangered Resources manages the SNA program. It's supported by contributions to the Endangered Resources Fund and the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. You can help by:

  • Joining the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and supporting the SNA campaign.

  • Donating to the Endangered Resources Fund on your Wisconsin income tax form.

  • Buying a "Wisconsin, naturally" guidebook to 150 state natural areas.

  • Purchasing an Endangered Resources wolf license plate for your vehicle.

  • Sending a check, payable to the Endangered Resources Fund State Natural Areas program, to:

Endangered Resources Program
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
P.O. Box 7921
Madison, WI 53707

About the NRF
The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin (NRF) is a member-supported, independent nonprofit organization that works with public and private partners to promote the knowledge, enjoyment and stewardship of Wisconsin's natural resources. NRF was founded in 1986 to raise private contributions for select DNR projects – mostly associated with endangered species and habitats – and to help fund worthy conservation programs around the state.

Since its inception, NRF has raised and provided over $1.3 million for a wide variety of worthy conservation projects, including public education and wildlife habitat restoration and improvement.

Current programs include:

  • Whooping Crane Reintroduction Project – As a member of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership, NRF raises funds to support the reintroduction of the endangered whooping crane to Wisconsin. Now in their third year of recovery, 36 migratory whoopers are wintering in Florida with summer breeding grounds in Wisconsin. NRF has contributed nearly $200,000 to the reintroduction project

  • C.D. Besadny Conservation Grants Program – NRF offers small matching grants up to $1,000 to private and public organizations and communities to support environmental education or conservation projects. Since 1989, NRF has awarded 275 grants in 70 counties totaling more than $183,000.

  • Field Trip Program – NRF annually organizes field trips from spring through fall led by experienced naturalists who visit natural landscapes and review outdoor issues throughout Wisconsin. From sea kayaking to osprey banding, bog walks to prairie hikes, these trips attract more than 1,400 participants annually. Since 1994, NRF has hosted 474 trips enjoyed by nearly 11,500 participants. A total of 75 exciting trips are planned this year.

  • State Natural Areas Campaign – In recent years, NRF has contributed more than $100,000 to protect and manage state natural areas, the best examples of original Wisconsin landscapes remaining under protection. Focusing on priority targeted sites throughout the state, this campaign is being greatly expanded in 2004.

To contact the Natural Resources Foundation, write or call:

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
PO Box 2317, Madison WI 53701-2317
1-866-264-4096 (toll free)