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State Natural Areas

Program information and history

State Natural Area logo

Prior to intensive European settlement in the 1830s, Wisconsin's landscape was a mosaic of more than 75 unique types of natural communities, ranging from prairies and oak savannas in the south, to pine forests and boggy wetlands in the north.  Together, these ecosystems harbored the full compliment of our state's rich diversity of plant and animal species.  Over the decades, the quality and extent of those natural communities were extremely reduced by land use changes, agricultural and logging practices, and by the ecological impact of altered natural disturbance regimes (such as fire and flooding), white-tailed deer herbivory, the spread of non-native invasive plant species and climate change. Today, the last remaining vestiges of Wisconsin's native landscape that have escaped extensive alteration, or that have substantially recovered from disturbance over time, are called "natural areas". 

We owe much to Wisconsin's early conservationists of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including Aldo Leopold, botanists Norman Fassett and Albert Fuller and plant ecologist John Curtis, who recognized the importance of natural areas and the consequences of their loss. Through their advocacy, the legislature created the State Board for the Preservation of Scientific Areas in 1951 as the first state-sponsored natural area protection program in the nation. That first board evolved into today's State Natural Areas (SNA) Program. 

SNA selection

The process to establish a State Natural Area begins with the evaluation of a site identified through field inventories conducted by DNR ecologists. Assessments take into account a site's overall ecological quality and diversity, extent of past disturbance, long-term viability, context within the greater landscape, and rarity of features on local and global scales. Sites are considered for potential SNA designation in one or more of the following categories:

  • outstanding natural community,
  • critical habitat for rare species of plants or animals,
  • ecological benchmark reference area,
  • significant geological or archaeological feature; and
  • exceptional site for natural area research and education.

Laws establishing the State Natural Areas program are found in Wisconsin  Statute Chapter 23 [exit DNR].

Establishment and protection

A State Natural Area may be established and afforded protection in three ways. The first is through direct acquisition of land or easement by the DNR's SNA Program. The department acquires property only from willing sellers and pays fair market value based on certified appraisals.  It also accepts donations of eligible lands. The second means is through the DNR's property master planning process.  Land that meets SNA standards and is already in DNR ownership such as a wildlife area, state park, fishery area or state forest, may be classified as an SNA in the property's master plan. The third way to establish a SNA is by way of a formal written agreement between the DNR and a non-profit organization, educational institution or government entity that owns land of SNA quality.  The SNA Program owes much of its success to these agreements with partners such as The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, and other land trusts, conservation organizations and state and local governments. More than one third of SNAs in the system are partner-owned.

Once secured by purchase or agreement, sites are formally "designated" as SNAs and become part of the SNA system. Designation confers a significant level of land protection through state statutes, administrative rules and guidelines. A higher level of protection is afforded by legal "dedication" of SNAs through Articles of Dedication, a special kind of perpetual conservation easement.

Management

Land stewardship is guided by principles of ecosystem management. For some SNAs, the best management prescription is to "let nature take its course" and allow natural processes and their subsequent effects, to proceed essentially without constraint. However, some processes, such as the encroachment of woody vegetation and the spread of invasive and exotic plant species, threaten the biological integrity of many SNAs. These sites require direct, hands-on management and, in some cases, the reintroduction of natural functions -- such as wild fire -- that are essentially absent from the landscape.

Visitation and use

Guidelines and rules for visiting

The majority of SNAs are remote and have few or no developed facilities. Some SNAs have vehicle access lanes or parking lots, but their accessibility may vary depending on weather conditions. Parking lots and lanes are not plowed during winter. Hiking trails may be absent or consist of undeveloped footpaths. 

Public use of SNAs is channeled in two directions: scientific research and compatible recreation. Natural areas serve as excellent outdoor laboratories for environmental education and formal research on natural communities and their component species. A permit issued by the SNA Program is required to conduct studies or collect specimens on SNAs. Natural areas are not appropriate for intensive recreation such as camping or mountain biking, but they can accommodate low-impact activities such as hiking, bird watching and nature study. 

Rules governing the use of SNAs are found in Ch NR 45 Wis. Admin. Code.

Entrance fees

Entrance to SNAs owned by the DNR is free of charge, except for Parfrey's Glen, the Cambrian Overlook in the Dells of the Wisconsin River and SNAs located within State Parks and the Point Beach and Kettle Moraine State Forests.  For these sites, a Wisconsin State Parks and Forests vehicle admission sticker is required.  For SNAs owned by SNA program partners, including land trusts and other government agencies, we are unaware of any admission fees. However, please contact the landowner for more information.

Refer to the table below for specific rules applicable to SNAs.

Activity Guidelines and rules for DNR-owned and most 
Camping Camping and fires are generally not permitted. However, some SNAs within state forests allow for primitive camping. Check with the respective state forest for details.
Climbing Rock climbing and rappelling are prohibited, except at East Bluff SNA within Devil's Lake State Park and Dalles of the St. Croix River SNA.
Collecting The collection of non-huntable animals, plants, fungi, rocks, minerals, fossils, archaeological artifacts, soil, downed wood or any other natural material, alive or dead, is prohibited except by permit.
Geocaching Traditional geocaching is not permitted. Earthcaching and virtual caching, in which a container is not hidden on the SNA, is permitted. Contact the SNA Program for permission to establish a virtual cache.
Horses Horseback riding is prohibited except on designated equestrian trails. 
Hours Most SNAs are open year around, 24 hours a day, unless otherwise noted in the specific SNA web page description or posted at the property. SNAs embedded within State Parks may have designated property hours.
Hunting The majority of DNR-owned State Natural Areas are open to hunting in accordance with state regulations. Refer to the “ownership” tab on individual SNA web pages to determine if the SNA is owned by the DNR or by a program partner. More details may also be available under the “access” tab on individual SNA web pages. Hunting is generally allowed on SNAs owned by SNA partner organizations and agencies, such as The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and county forests, but specific rules vary depending on the partner’s policies and some may require a special permit. Refer to the “ownership” tab on individual SNA pages to determine if the SNA is owned by a partner and contact them directly for more information on hunting on their properties. Also be advised that local township and municipal ordinances may regulate or prohibit hunting and the discharge of firearms on lands within their jurisdiction.
Pets Pets are allowed on most DNR-owned SNAs, although they are prohibited in Parfrey's Glen. Dogs must be kept on a leash no longer than 8', unless they are being used for hunting purposes in areas that are open to hunting.
Plants Plants and plant parts, including seeds, roots, boughs, flowers, etc., may not be collected without a permit issued by the SNA Program.  See below for guidelines on collecting edible wild plants.
Research A permit is required for collecting specimens and conducting scientific research on SNAs. Please contact the SNA Program for a permit application. 
Vehicles Vehicles are prohibited on SNAs,  including bicycles, ATVs, aircraft and snowmobiles except on trails and roadways designated for their use. Access to SNAs is only by foot, skis, snowshoes and watercraft. Some trails are wheelchair accessible.
Wild edibles Edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus and watercress may be removed by hand without a permit for the purpose of personal consumption by the collector. "Edible fruits" means fleshy fruits from plants including apples, plums, pears, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, juneberries and strawberries that are harvested for human consumption. "Edible nuts" means walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns and other similar nuts from trees and shrubs.