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Northwoods Conservation

Vast conifer-hardwood forests dominate the land in portion of northern Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario. Thousands of lakes, streams, and wetlands are embedded with this forest matrix. Water quality is generally high. Wisconsin’s Northwoods are the only part of the state where natural vegetation is overwhelmingly dominant. Iconic species, such as Bald Eagle, Osprey, white-tailed deer, elk, and white pine contribute to the love-affair residents and visitors alike have for the Northwoods.


A greater proportion of the Northwoods has been protected than any other ecological landscape in the state. We should be in a good position to maintain our forests and lakes that we love, but caution is needed even on our public lands. We have lost species, such as woodland caribou, wolverine, and have much reduced chances of seeing moose and mountain lions. In the future, change climatic conditions could greatly reduce habitat for many species such as Ruffed Grouse, and American Woodcock by projected high losses of aspen and red pine from our forests.


Our northern forested wetlands are the most vulnerable, but quality areas may persist, as exemplified by our current relicts hanging on in southern Wisconsin. Presented is the status of protection and opportunities for change of management direction. Future dry to mesic forests of oak, white pine and maples should do best. Large intact wetlands situated in a matrix of these older forest types have the best chances to persist as relicts.


Changing management direction is very difficult. All the protected lands have management planning efforts, but they are governed by the legislation that enabled their protection and management. These side-boards vary from considering biological diversity to a primary economic focus. Regardless the enabling legislation, planning efforts usually consider the planned for resource to be their forever. This may not be the case. In many instances one more harvest of aspen or red pine maybe all that remains of these types for commercial purposes. Furthermore, short-term needs more often than not win over long-term planning. Counties need revenue to provide services. Loggers need jobs to put food on table. Legislators respond to these needs, because they do not need votes in 2050.


Matrix of Northern Hardwoods and Aspen:

  • Northwoods County Forests (1,900,000 acres): All Northwoods counties have county forests. They are planned simultaneously on 15-year schedules and governed by state statute.  The overriding and primary purpose is to sustainably manage the forests and provide revenue to the counties – usually via timber sales, recreation fees, trail fees, etc. Small portions of the forests can be recognized for special features. A few places may benefit from long-term planning and these opportunities are described in appropriate sections below.

  • Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest (1,300,000 acres): The enabling legislation requires the national forest to consider a much broader range of values than county forests. Over 150,000 acres are planned to become old forests.

  • Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest (225,000 acres): State forests are in between the national forest and county forest regarding what to consider in planning. Legislation requires 75% of any state forest land deemed productive to have timber production as its primary goal. This new law has seen a reduction in acres dedicated for older forest that was formerly approved with intensive public input.

  • Flambeau River State Forest (80,000 acres): State forests are in between the national forest and county forest regarding what to consider in planning. Legislation requires 75% of any state forest land deemed productive to have timber production as its primary goal. 

  • Willow Flowage Scenic Waters (30,000 acres): Nearly all young forest.

  • Chippewa Flowage Scenic Waters (12,000 acres): Managed for sustainable yield.

  • Turtle Flambeau Scenic Waters (30,000 Acres): Managed for sustainable yield.

  • Miscellaneous State Wildlife Areas (30,000 acres): Managed for forest wildlife habitat – oaks and young forest.

  • Forest Legacy Easements (225,000 acres): These lands are owned by industrial forest interest with public easement to prevent subdividing and permitting public access.

  • Many acres of Managed Forest Land.


In all, over 3,800,000 acres dedicated to sustaining timber resources and wildlife habitat for species that do well in forest less than 100 – 120 years old.


Old-growth Developmental Areas:

Only a small fraction of the protected lands are dedicated to developing old-growth characteristics, and even with this small fraction most of the land is still harvested sustainably for older trees. Current dedicated areas are listed in the pdf, which is followed by areas with the qualities of land features and cover types indicate great opportunities for old forest development and maintenance.





Freshwater Lakes:

Wisconsin’s Northwoods along with Minnesota have most of the freshwater lakes in the lower 48. Accessibility to any lake drained by a river system is guaranteed via the Northwest Ordinance. Seepage lakes have no such guarantee. Regardless, the public’s right to access a lake, shore land development can alter the ecology of lakes as well as the aesthetic values of the lake user.


Lakes with all or mostly natural vegetation continue to be under pressure as a very lucrative venture for the real estate business. Lake lots and homes are in high demand and thus the prices reflect that demand. For those who wish to experience wild lake settings, the options are limited to lakes embedded within public lands – oft times federal, state and county forest boundaries exclude larger lakes, because their purpose is trees not water or real estate – or owning your own private lake.


In many instances, the private ownership protects lakes from adverse uses sometimes associated with public waters.  As long as the owners keep the lakes in good condition they should stay in private ownership. However, circumstances can change over time.  Heirs may eventually not be interested in a lake’s aesthetic values and want to see monetary reward. At times like this, protection discussion should take places.





Highland Outwash Pines:

This are offers the best potential in the state for managing large tracts of naturally occurring white and red pine forests. Fortunately, all of the known opportunities are on existing public lands. Recognized areas, where long-term old pine forest restoration is occurring;

  • Papoose Creek, Allequash, Frog lake and Camp Nine Pines on the NHAL

  • Beaver Creek, and Hay Meadow flowage on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest

  • Squirrel and Tomahawk Rivers SNA


Embedded Wetlands: The wetlands embedded within the North’s extensive forest provide outstanding diversity for the Northwoods. Many species only live in these wet habitats. Future climate may affect these communities more than any other in the Northwoods. The best protection strategies may be to focus on the largest and most intact wetlands and buffer them with the relative cooler microclimates offered by old forests.

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