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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Oak savanna along the upper reaches of the Sugar River.

© Thomas A. Meyer

December 2005

A path of our own making

The Land Legacy Report serves as a compass, blueprint and roadmap to guide land conservation and outdoor recreation for the next 50 years.

David L. Sperling

Keep your crystal ball under wraps and put the Ouija board back on the shelf. A more powerful tool to accurately plot a course for the future will soon be available to community planners and those who enjoy the outdoors. The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report shares a figurative and literal "big picture" of the places deemed critical to protect and meet conservation and outdoor recreation needs for the next 50 years.

The coffee table-sized book is a handsome volume flush with photos, illustrations, charts and maps that provide a picture of our changing society and a direction for saving natural features and spaces for outdoor experiences. The book is a combination of conservation history, an almanac of outdoor resources, an inventory of 229 locations ("Legacy Places") worth protecting over the next 50 years, and a tool for planning community development that protects the intangible qualities that add to our "quality of life."

In Wisconsin, a robust economy has always drawn its strength from abundant natural resources like wood and water, note DNR leaders in the book's introduction. Keeping natural resources viable for the long term is as much an economic benefit as an environmental one. Recognizing this, a governor's task force assessing the achievements in the first 10 years of the Stewardship Fund recommended that DNR staff develop a report describing the state's future land protection needs through the year 2050.

"We wanted a process that could help people envision their conservation future," notes DNR biologist and project manager John Pohlman. "We wanted to inventory the land and gather the expertise of a wide variety of people who know this state as farmers, biologists, community planners, outdoor enthusiasts, professional land managers and family caretakers.

"The public and DNR staff repeatedly noted land use trends that concerned them," Pohlman continued, "pressures brought on by growing numbers of people and changing development patterns. Land uses change when family farms and woodlots are developed for homes, industrial forests are sold and divided, and our developed infrastructure spreads farther and farther into our rural countryside." As noted in the Foreword, "We need to build houses, roads, schools, industrial structures, commercial districts, and the many other facilities that support our growing population and expanding economy. But we must ensure that our developed infrastructure does not impair either our environment or our farm, forest, recreation, and tourism industries." Given the rapid changes confronting the state, it makes sense to consider what lands should be protected.

"We were directed to take a fresh look at land protection needs to revitalize a tool that helped guide public policy more than 50 years ago," Pohlman explained.

A somewhat similar planning process back in 1939, the Park, Parkway and Recreational Area Plan for Wisconsin, identified scenic areas that offered exceptional recreational opportunities. Many of those places are now protected as county, state and national forests, parks, wildlife areas and natural areas. Since that time land conservation groups and land trusts have developed strong skills in working with private landowners to similarly protect fragile parcels and recreation areas. The combination of a strong nonprofit community, public purchases funded through the Stewardship Program, private land management, conservation easements and tax incentives offer more tools to protect land than ever before.

Historically the goal of maintaining our natural heritage was a partnership anchored by individual people and families who loved the land and protected the homesteads that were the foundation of their family traditions and experience. These were bolstered by private groups, civic leaders, conservationists and public funding to preserve parcels as parks and public spaces.

"Communities throughout the state are struggling with how best to accommodate and encourage both environmental protection and economic growth," said Steve Miller who has served as the study's director. "We want to balance those decisions with the continued need to preserve our 'green infrastructure' – those important ecological landscapes and public green spaces that add so much to our quality of life. Our hope is that this report, by setting a 50-year vision, will help the Department of Natural Resources and so many other partners keep a long-term focus on sustaining quality land and water resources while we address shorter term opportunities."

The three-year planning process included public meetings across the state where the general public, outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists, professional land managers and researchers were asked to identify places and resource types that warrant some sort of long-term protection – sites that are particularly fine examples of native ecosystems or lands that link together recreational routes and opportunities.

In reviewing this report, the casual reader will want to jump to chapter four, which inventories and lists the 229 "Legacy Places." The Legacy Places are grouped by 16 ecological landscapes (see the poster in the center of this issue) that have similar topography, soils and types of vegetation. Not surprisingly, there is great variation in the Legacy Places – some are huge while others are small, some have been the focus of past protection efforts while others have not. Each Legacy Place contains a brief description, one- to five-star ratings of its conservation significance and recreation potential.

The maps of the different regions of the state also provide approximate locations of the Legacy Places, Pohlman said. "We wanted to focus our attention at the 'big picture' perspective to highlight the general areas harboring high-quality grasslands, forests, wetlands and waters, as well as places to hike, watch birds, canoe, ride horses, fish and hunt," Pohlman explained.

"We feel that identifying the specific parcels and properties that warrant protection is best left to a more locally-focused decisionmaking – a lot more dialogue around lots of kitchen tables."

Thanks to the efforts of many conservation groups and agencies, an impressive network of our natural heritage has been preserved, but as the report describes: "gaps remain in Wisconsin's 'portfolio' of protected lands and waters. The science of conservation has evolved over the past several decades and as a result we better understand how our forests, wetlands and grasslands function. It is now apparent that in many cases our protected places are likely too small, isolated and fragmented to maintain their species diversity and their ecological functions over time...We will need to continue finding ways to better integrate our conservation lands within larger working agriculture and forested landscapes."

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Kohler-Andrae sand dunes.

© Thomas A. Meyer

Demand for outdoor recreation continues to exceed supply. As more people depend on public lands to provide a wide variety of outdoor activities the increasing pressure has led to a growing number of conflicts, overcrowding and impacts on resources. The uneven distribution of public lands for outdoor recreation across the state is a long-standing concern, the narrative states.

"The report highlights what we did right in the past, what we've preserved and where there are gaps," Miller explained. "It's not a list of places DNR wants to buy. It doesn't identify how, when or who should protect these places. The report talks more about potential – which areas appear reasonably protected and which ones warrant further efforts to protect conservation and recreation values into the future."

For conservationists and science teachers who want a better sense of the turf where they live, here's a tool to get a clearer picture of the breadth and diversity of nature nearby. The descriptions of Legacy Places will certainly suggest areas to consider for science class visits, conservation projects and personal exploration.

The report may also serve as a valuable primer for elected officials and community volunteers who are thrown into the fray of making land use decisions for their county, village or town. Here they can get background information on how land use decisions made in the past have affected farmlands, forestlands, shorelands and wetlands.

Seasoned biologists and budding ecologists will find useful definitions of natural communities. Here they can learn the terms that ecologists use to separate the nuances of bogs, thickets, glades, fens, marshes and the like. Professional urban planners will find a mix of land use essays that share why those who regulate community development need to think big about protecting groundwater recharge areas, large working forests, recreation areas and trails. Academics and their students will delve more deeply into the histories of changing land uses, population trends, housing densities and development patterns.

This is a volume that should be used until it is dog-eared in regional planning offices, by local land trusts, at college and community libraries, by field ecologists, and by local governmental boards that set local land use policy. Community activists and conservation groups who want to do their town a favor should consider buying and donating copies for local use. Copies of the Wisconsin Land Legacy Report will be available after January 15, 2006 for $15 apiece plus $8 shipping and handling. Checks are payable to "Wisconsin DNR." The report can be ordered at (800) 362-7253 or purchased at DNR Service Centers.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.