70 Years Of State Natural Areas

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR)’s State Natural Areas Program. To help celebrate the milestone, the DNR is offering new opportunities for people to preserve, protect and appreciate Wisconsin’s best remaining prairies, forests, wetlands and geological wonders. Visit the DNR’s State Natural Areas webpage for a list of new features and to find a State Natural Area near you.

“Wisconsinites are very fortunate conservationists at the time had the foresight and commitment to save our natural heritage for future generations,” said Drew Feldkirchner, DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Director. “The DNR, partner organizations and volunteers have worked hard over the past 70 years to identify, acquire and protect these areas. We invite Wisconsinites to learn more about what makes these places special and to help us care for them.”

More information about Wisconsin’s State Natural Areas is now available:

A Brief History On Wisconsin’s State Natural Areas
The Wisconsin Legislature created the SNA program in November 1951, responding to concerns expressed by Wisconsin conservationist Aldo Leopold and botanist John Curtis and others that Wisconsin’s distinct “natural communities” – discrete groupings defined by the soils, geology, plants and animals that evolved together to form different types of grasslands, wetlands and forests – were fast disappearing.

The goal of the program was to as nearly as possible represent the wealth and variety of Wisconsin’s native landscape for education, scientific research and for the long-term protection of Wisconsin’s biological diversity for future generations. Wisconsin has more than 100 different natural communities, and many of them are globally rare, like tall grass prairie, pine barrens and oak savanna. More than 230 animal and plant species are listed endangered or threatened in Wisconsin, and 90% of those plant species and 75% of the wildlife species are preserved on State Natural Areas. Parfrey’s Glen was designated the first State Natural Area in 1952, and the program has since grown to include sites owned by more than 50 partners. The U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and The Prairie Enthusiasts are among the partners. 

SNAs Offer A Wild Experience; Trails And Restrooms Not Included
Nearly all SNAs are open to the public for hiking, hunting, bird-watching, nature study and photography but most are largely undeveloped. They do not have trails, restrooms or other amenities because the primary purpose of these public lands is to protect the natural communities they encompass. Visitors are asked to enjoy these ecologically sensitive sites responsibly.

Undeveloped doesn’t mean unmanaged, however. Increasingly, the DNR must take a hands-on approach to these native habitats. The state is divided into nine districts – each with an ecologist responsible for managing state-owned sites in their region and working with small crews to help detect and control invasive species, conduct prescribed burns, collect and plant native seeds and cut unwanted brush. Volunteers operating through the State Natural Areas Volunteer Program are helping supplement staff work at about three dozen sites.    

It takes work to maintain these important places, and much has changed in the last 70 years. In recent decades these places have experienced many new invasive species, a changing climate, white-tailed deer browse, encroaching development and other human-caused stressors that threaten their ecological values.  A soon-to-be-released strategic plan will establish the framework for maintaining the viability of SNAs into the future. The DNR restoration and protection of SNAs are funded through grants, along with private donations to the Wisconsin Endangered Resources FundThe Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin also provides important funding to support many SNAs.