Wisconsin’s SNAs are not like state parks.
They are more like arks – preserving some of our state’s natural diversity from the rising tide of development that threatens to overwhelm the beautiful land European settlers entered in the 1800s.
Blue Mounds Area Project (BMAP)began its winter lecture series recently with a presentation by a conservation biologist with the State Natural Areas (SNAs) program.
Here follows our report on the first BMAP conservation conversation as it appeared in The Dodgeville Chronicle, The Mount Horeb Mail and the Pecatonica Leader.
Discover the many SNAs tucked away in SW Wisconsin
by Denise Thornton and Doug Hansmann
The European settlers arriving in Wisconsin in the 1850s found old growth forests in the north and sweeping, untouched prairies in the south. That world is gone, but we can still experience something of what the pioneers encountered through a statewide system of State Natural Areas.
“We are your system of nature preserves,” Tom Meyer, a conservation biologist with the State Natural Areas (SNAs) program since 1993, told the audience at the first of four winter Conservation Conversations sponsored by the Blue Mounds Area Project. BMAP is a community-based group that helps landowners in Southwestern Wisconsin enjoy, protect and restore native biodiversity.
SNAs represent outstanding examples of native biotic communities that are often the last places in Wisconsin where rare plants and animals are protected. More than 90 percent of the plants and 75 percent of animals on the rare and endangered species list in Wisconsin are protected in our SNAs.
Meyer began his presentation by looking back into Wisconsin’s history to the time more than 10,000 years ago when glaciers covered most of the state. The Southwest corner of Wisconsin, known as the Driftless Area, was the only region not buried under a thick sheet of ice.
As the glaciers receded, they left a landscape peppered with lakes, caves, hills, winding ridges composed of sand and gravel, plains formed by outwash at the end of melting glaciers and other familiar features of present-day Wisconsin, but there were no plants, except for the Driftless Area.
“When plants started repopulating Wisconsin, they came from several directions. Some of our forests moved in from the Appalachians to the east or up from the region of Arkansas. Grasslands spread from the west. Forests of pines, spruces and larches migrated down from the north,” said Meyer. “They formed natural communities such as prairies, savannas, barrens, forests, flood plains, marshes and stream areas.”
In the 1940s and 50s, Aldo Leopold and other UW professors sounded a call to action to preserve examples of the natural communities. The first State Natural Area was Parfrey’s Glen in Sauk County. This dramatic gorge cuts deeply into the south flank of the Baraboo Hills. To this day, its cool, moss-covered walls provide shelter for a cold, hard-water stream that supports native brook trout and a rare diving beetle.
“Our Natural Heritage Inventory Program classifies more than 100 distinct natural community types,” Meyer said.
They are represented today in 681 SNAs covering 380,000 acres. All State Natural Areas are open to the public.
“When you visit, you might find a parking lot or maybe just a sign,” said Meyer. “Then you are on your own. No developed trails. No picnic areas. No camping. No mountain biking or horseback riding. These are great places to hike through nature and appreciate our unique Wisconsin heritage, while treading lightly to preserve them for future generations.”
The best way to find these hidden treasures is to go to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website. There you will find them all with photos, descriptions, directions and a map. You can also purchase a guidebook to many of our SNAs on the website. It includes a handy fold-out map listing over 400 sites.
Many State Natural Areas are located in southwestern Wisconsin. Pleasant Valley Conservancy in western Dane County preserves prairie, oak savanna, wetlands and oak forest, harboring an exceptional diversity of plant species.
“If you want to see what Southwestern Wisconsin looked like in the 1840s in a big way, this is the place,” Meyer said. “As you come up Highway F, you can marvel at a spectacular hillside.”
Ridgeway Pine Relict in Iowa County preserves remnants of pine forest in protected gorges that will take you back to the time of the glaciers.
“Though the Driftless Area wasn’t covered by glaciers, we had a cooler climate here during the Ice Age,” said Meyer. “You can go to Ridgeway and see this wonderful northern pine forest juxtaposed with rock outcroppings that you only find in the Driftless, so you have a really interesting and diverse site.”
Muralt Bluff Prairie in Green County blankets a long, sweeping ridge with a dry-mesic prairie. It features outstanding displays of many prairie grasses and flowers including rare kitten tails and prairie thistle, and is home to the rare Regal Fritillary butterfly.
Blue River Sand Barrens in Grant County is one of Meyer’s favorite spots.
“We have a desert along the Wisconsin River in certain open sandy areas,” he said. “You’ll find our native cactus, the rare brittle prickly pear as well as the common prickly pear. They bloom around the first of July. That’s the time to do your cactus walk. You’ll also see other species adapted to hot, dry conditions, including lizards, ant lions, wolf spiders and lots of turtles.”
Protecting these special places is an ongoing challenge, said Meyer. Climate change raises worrying questions.
“We have snippets of forest in the Door County peninsula and along the Lake Superior shore that are typical of more northern areas. If our temperatures go up a couple of degrees, we don’t know if those plants and animals that rely on cool micro-climates will be able to handle it.”
Today most of the State Natural Area Program’s time and energy is spent fighting invasive species that threaten to overwhelm native plants and animals.
“Right now, we are not winning the battle against garlic mustard, buckthorn and other invasives,” Meyer said
He suggested several ways to help.
“We have a volunteer steward program that you can check out on our website. You can also donate to the Natural Resource Fund on your income tax return or purchase an endangered resource license plate.”
“We have field trips to more than 100 SNAs every year,” said Meyer. “I lead about six of them, to the Dells and the bogs and the Wisconsin desert. We would welcome having you there.”
Future BMAP talks are “Private Lands Conservation” given by ecologist Jeb Barzen February 9; “Sniffing Out Ornate Box Turtles” by WiDNR conservation biologists Rori Paloski and Rick Staffen February 23; and “Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic: a Product of Perspective” by Steve Swenson of the Aldo Leopold Foundation March 9.
All BMAP talks are free and open to the public. They take place at 7 p.m. at the Mount Horeb branch of the State Bank of Cross Plains, 1740 Business Hwy 18-151 in Mount Horeb.