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An Accounting of our Natural Treasures


The long-term traditions of the hunting cabin, mother’s favorite wildflower patch, or a place for the kids to play are a few of many reasons why landowners may choose to leave their land to nature over profit.


  • Long family tradition of a hunting camp – priceless

  • Generations of using a Northwood’s cabin - priceless

  • Inspiration of nature’s beauty – priceless

  • Recuperative values of nature for individual health – priceless

  • Places to share values between generations – priceless

  • An owners connection to do the right thing on their land – priceless

  • An owners motivation to take worn-out land and make it better - monetary costs.


Sometimes these important family values take on extra significance due to their location in the state. Likewise, due to its biology, Wisconsin has extra responsibility for conserving certain natural areas where rare species populations occur, or where a natural feature is found more commonly here than anywhere else in the country or even the world.


If we do not take care of these special natural areas, they will most likely be lost, because other places do not have them. Our natural world will be diminished if we do not have barrens, bur oak openings, or calcareous fens, just as a private waterfowl hunting marsh will have its values diminished if it is devoid of waterfowl. Fortunately, Wisconsin has a long and exemplary tradition of caring for our natural world, whether it’s public lands, land trusts or private landowners. This long tradition has provided a secure future for many our cherished lakes, rivers, and natural areas, and importantly, our outdoor traditions. However, can we say we have completed all that is necessary for a future with the full range of species and natural communities?


How are we doing?


To do an accounting, we need to establish a context for comparison. A families’ hunting land may be measured by the largest buck ever shot on the property-nothing else would come close in comparison, because that’s the purpose of the land. A farmer may take great pride in the improved soil nutrients, he left his son. A daughter’s wedding at the cabin may be the most treasured memory from decades of family use in the Northwoods. These examples are property specific, and no amount of scientific measurement can diminish these values. However, for an owner to recognize a higher level of natural values or go beyond normal management, he or she need place their property into a geographical and biological perspective.


Sense of Place:


Sense of place is a group phenomenon that goes beyond any one individual's views. Innate feelings develop over time and are usually derived from the land encompassing a community. These long-lasting community sentiments are comprised of a mix of natural and cultural features centered on the land. An example is a small Mississippi River town with bluffs on the east and the grand old river to the west, complemented with commonly understood stories of local characters or events, such as the great flood of 1965. This sense of place may be so strong that efforts to level the bluffs or divert the river would be met with strong opposition regardless of person’s political tendencies.  Communities with a strong sense of place have an identity and character recognized immediately by a visitor and valued deeply by residents.  And almost always, this strong sense of place involves natural features people treasure.


Contrasting to this sense of place are places with little or no special relationship to the land. They could be anywhere. Roadside strip shopping malls, gas stations, fast food restaurants, mega malls, and souvenir shops are examples of placeless landscapes. These placeless features are readily used, but if they are lost, the community does not mourn. Another gas station will be built.


The deep unspoken values that make us feel we belong, take time to develop. Geographers have long noted that more recently developed areas have a much more surficial sense of place than older, well established areas. Newly created subdivisions have not had the time to develop a group understanding nor a history to connect with this piece of land. They are quite ephemeral and can be easily replaced or discarded by something else.

The knowledge of place comes from making a living from it, weathering its catastrophes, revealing in its accomplishments, loving the smell of fresh cut hay or the pine scented lake air, watching the evenings golden light glimmer across the bluff face, enduring the winters in the Lake Superior snow belt or the scorching hot sands along the Lower Wisconsin River, valuing it for the profound investment your ancestors have put into it. You need to know this accumulated knowledge made you who you are. This knowledge of place requires time, energy, and paying attention to realize its implications for land conservation. Today, it seems people spend most of their time online, driving, working, or at the coffee shop. They have precious little connection to any natural place.


  • Would Green Bay be the same if thirsty southwest US states divert so much water that the shoreline is 8 miles northeast of the present location?

  • Would LaCrosse be the same if mountain loads of rock are removed, creating a gently rolling rubble pile east of the city?

  • Would Minoqua be the same if 10 story-high condos lap the shorelines of every nearby lake?

  • Would Wausau be the same if Rib Mountain was levelled for railroad ballast?


Whether we realize or not, the geographical features of our home area give us a sense of community belonging.


Biological Place:

Healthy land and water relates directly to human health and safety. We all need clean water to drink and clean air to breath.  We all want our families to be safe. Mother Nature is one tough lady. She can endure meteor strikes, blizzards, wildfires and droughts, but she has limits. However, if we graze every hillside, drain the floodplain wetlands, cut the trees and plow the floodplains, catastrophic floods will occur on regular basis.  Our human actions can affect our natural home in both positive and negative ways. A few examples are:

  • Old-growth forest is higher in moisture and is more resistant to wildfires.

  • Red pine plantations are the most vulnerable to wild fires.

  • Floodplains and wetlands protect against floods and cleanse dirty water.

  • Prairies are drought resistant.

  • Vast acres of very simplified forest are much more susceptible to catastrophic events and decreased quality of life.

  • Buckthorn forests harbor virtually no wildlife.

  • Buckthorn forests have little vegetation to hold the soil.

  • Provides places for children to develop their curious brains.

  • Provides a connection between a families’ history and future generations.

  • Provides pride in an areas biological features, such as a maple syrup grove, long, sandy Great Lakes dunes, concentrations of large birds, bluff prairies, etc.

  • High quality and diverse natural communities provide a safety net for failure of less diverse natural communities. These simple natural communities with a few species of tree or grass are subject to destruction by disease or replacement by non-native species.


We are strongest when we are part of nature. Example:  Mineral Point school district has a program that has lasted for decades; it provides continuity through the generations and instills a sense of biological place. The school maintains two savannas on its grounds. Each year elementary students plant the seeds of savanna plants and grow them in the greenhouse. When the plants are ready for planting, high schoolers assist the youngsters in the planting. After a generation, a long-term connection has been made with the biological importance of savanna to the Mineral Point area.  Any proposal to rip up the savanna to create a parking lot would be met with strong opposition.


Best of the Best:

Wisconsin has so much great natural beauty it hard to say this spot is more important than that one. Nearly every landowner has numerous reasons to say why his or her land is special, although they readily admit that their ravine is no Grand Canyon or their woodlot is no redwood forest. Nonetheless, it holds great value to them, but what values would constitute that higher level of importance.


Fortunately, we have information at hand that can guide us. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has completed a book on Wisconsin’s Ecological Landscapes. This monster book has nearly everything a person would need to know about the area in which they live. Information on natural features, plants and animals and economic conditions are analyzed in detail.


Important Features Identified in the Book are:

  • All natural features, key habitats, and sensitive species are considered.

  • Land and water support the economy.

  • Management considers multiple actions across space and time.

  • Biological baseline assessments are crucial.

  • Management needs to be coordinated in special areas.

  • Natural communities have limited membership, i.e. a cactus will not be found in a peat bog.

  • Species in a natural community are always challenged by invaders.

  • Some assortments and combinations of species are more persistent and stable.

  • Early seral stage species primary role is to modify the natural community conditions to a point where different species will be suited.


Accounting parameters:

The most important information for is the context placed on natural features. For example, dry Pine Barrens on glacial sands are only found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario. And, Wisconsin harbors the vast majority of Pine Barrens acres in the entire world. If Pine Barrens are important to keep, then Wisconsin is the place to do it. The acres elsewhere are minuscule. This accounting is presented for each site with substantive conservation left to do as a box within the individual landscapes pages.


Important concepts to provide a big picture context:

  • Does the site contain irreplaceable features? Some features are so rare that if they are lost there are no other places to replace them. An example is the Red Banks alvar - a bedrock community that is only found in one substantive location in the state. If we lose this site, all the species that thrive on alvars will have no home.

  • What is Wisconsin’s responsibility for keeping a natural community? Some places, even seemingly common features, are quite rare in the rest of the world, North America, or in the regional Upper Midwest. For example, Pine Barrens is found abundantly in northwest Wisconsin, but unknowingly to most persons, this constitutes nearly ¾ of the Pine Barrens on earth.

  • Does the site have several landforms? Different slopes and aspects to the sun’s rays help increase diversity. If water features are included, they value jumps significantly.

  • Does the site harbor truly rare species? GNW looks only at total rarity. This evaluation does not put much emphasis on species at the edge of their range in Wisconsin.

  • Does the site contain potential habitat for rare species? The Wisconsin Wildlife Action Plan (WWAP) indicates this potential and these numbers were used to give a relative potential for each site.

  • What is the long-term viability, if the climate changes? Natural community vulnerability analysis was again done by WWAP.

  • What is the threat from development? Population density trends can greatly influence whether or not a site will be subjected to intense economic pressure to sub-divide.


As long as the landowner, whether it remains in the family or perpetuated by another like-minded landowner, retains the natural values of the property, it should stay in private ownership. If the family losses interest in properties land-term natural values or another owner would dramatically change the direction of the property, then a land trust or public agency should become involved for those properties that are the best of the best.


On the ground information was obtained by reviewing air photos, soil maps, watershed and drainage maps, roadside bird surveys, road ditch plant surveys, past surveys by DNR or land trusts, or in some cases actual invitations to survey the property were received. Great Nature Wisconsin LLC never entered private land without permission.

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