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North Branch Milwaukee River Wildlife and Farming Heritage Area

North Branch Milwaukee River Wildlife and Farming Heritage Area is within 20 miles of the Milwaukee metropolitian area and lies within the Milwaukee River Basin in northwestern Ozaukee, southwestern Sheboygan and northeastern Washington counties. Scattered parcels of public land lie within a 25-square-mile block of land southwest of the village of Random Lake and northwest of Fredonia — both villages are along state Highway 57.

This is a new and active acquisition project that, as of 2009, included 13 parcels of state owned-land totaling 765 acres and two privately owned properties — totaling 171 acres — with easements that allow for public use. Within the area, other conservation partners own land open to some public uses, including 407 acres that are federally owned under the waterfowl production area program and 134-acre parcel owned by the Ozaukee-Washington County Land Trust and open for passive uses and limited hunting opportunities.

This project area is one of the largest blocks on undeveloped land in southeastern Wisconsin yet within 20 miles of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Although located just outside of the largest urban area in the state, the project area is predominantly open and rural with large wetland complexes, riparian corridors and agriculture dominating the landscape. The project area includes 9 miles of the North Branch Milwaukee River and five tributary streams, expansive areas of floodplain forest, coniferous swamps, other wetlands, three small lakes and large blocks of agricultural lands. Because of its location and natural resource features, the property has the potential for preserving farmland or "stabilizing the rural landscape" while providing low impact, nature-based, outdoor recreational opportunities. The property is located within the "Southeast Glacial Plains" ecological landscape, which is characterized as one of the landscapes with the highest wetland and river productivity for plants, insects and invertebrates in the state.

Property history

This unique project seeks to preserve the strong agricultural farming tradition of the area while maintaining wildlife habitat, restoring plant communities and wetlands and providing recreational opportunities. There was an extensive amount of public involvement during the three years that it took to do the feasibility study. The project was approved in the fall of 2002 and included some unique approaches to preserving open space and natural resources. Authorization of the feasibility study provided opportunities to protect farmland with conservation and development rights easements, to protect stream corridors outside of the core area with streambank easements and to purchase lands for habitat and restoration throughout the 19,487-acre project area.

Management Objective

The purpose of the project is for the Department of Natural Resources, in partnership with local, state and national governmental units, the farming community, conservation groups and citizens to provide land and water areas to:

  • maintain the rural-agricultural character;
  • maintain and enhance existing natural resources;
  • restore plant communities and wetlands to improve wildlife habitat and water quality; and
  • provide nature-based outdoor recreation and education opportunities.

The property employs a variety of acquisition and protection tools, including the purchase of development rights, fee simple acquisition, conservation easements, donations, public-private partnership/cost-shared acquisitions and landowner participation in state and federal land conservation programs.

A policy of "passive" management is used in some self-sustaining community types such as lowland forests, with the exception of where invasive species control is necessary. Over the years, many wetlands have been degraded, filled or destroyed. One primary effort will be to manage and restore wetlands on the property, including the re-establishment of vegetative and riparian buffers to protect the watershed, improve wildlife habitats and reduce soil erosion. Where open areas are to be maintained, several management systems will be used — prescribed burning, brush cutting, herbicide treatments and sharecropping or grazing — to facilitate habitat health. Ponds, lakes, rivers and streams will be managed to improve water quality and wildlife habitat through a variety of best management practices.


The North Branch Milwaukee River Wildlife and Farming Heritage Area offers many recreational opportunities:

  • Birding;
  • Canoeing;
  • Cross-country skiing (no designated trail);
  • Fishing;
  • Hiking (no designated trail);
  • Hunting;
  • Snowmobiling trail;
  • Trapping;
  • Wild edibles/gathering; and
  • Wildlife viewing.

Unique Considerations

The Huiras Lake State Natural Area lies within the boundaries of the North Branch Milwaukee River Wildlife and Farming Heritage Area. The boundary of the Huiras Lake SNA encompasses 941-acres and includes the 26-acre pristine, hardwater seepage lake within the larger forest complex. Plant communities include dry-mesic forest, mixed conifer and hardwood swamp and relict kettle bog. The Natural Heritage Inventory identifies several threatened, endangered or special concern plant and animal species on the property. The property is also rich in cultural and archaeological resources. Many sites have been identified as historically important features from both Native American cultures and early European settlers.

Friends Group

As called for in the feasibility study for the project, the department established a Citizen Advisory Committee to identify priorities, ways to protect the land and serve as a liaison with the citizens in the area. The CAC is a group of local citizens and officials, representing the major interests, especially agricultural and natural resources. It is required that 50% or more committee members be active farmers from the area.


Download maps of this property: Ozaukee County portion [PDF], Sheboygan County portion [PDF], Washington County portion [PDF]

If you are interested in exploring this property further, you can access an interactive map.

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