Forests or wildlife habitat?

Once the farmers had abandoned the barrens, Burnett County enrolled much of the land under a new forest crop law that encouraged the management of northern Wisconsin to generate timber revenue.

But naturalists, partly inspired by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist credited with fostering the environmental ethic of the 20th Century, began to push instead for the preservation of barrens habitat in Wisconsin. They were especially interested in land used by prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Many of these people considered the Namekagon Barrens one of the last and best places to manage land to preserve this habitat by clearing and repeatedly burning it to maintain a pine and oak barrens landscape.

The debate sometimes grew acrimonious but by the mid-1950s, Burnett County agreed to withdraw some 5,000 acres from its forest crop law land and lease it to the state Conservation Department. The Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area came into being. Wildlife specialists cleared the barrens of their crumbling homesteads, began a controlled burning program and took other steps to encourage the survival of the sharp-tailed grouse.

For some 60 years the leases were renewed, although the county took back some land in the 1990s. In 2015, other land was added in Washburn County, and the Department of Natural Resources and Burnett County engineered a land swap resulting in state ownership of the 6,400-acre wildlife area. The land is now managed through prescribed fire, mowing and other measures to maintain and restore barrens habitat for the plant and animal species that depend on it, and for everyone’s enjoyment, appreciation, and recreation.

by Dave Peters