Not Really Northwoods?

our area was once much more prairie than forest

Bill Hogseth

Since European settlement, Wisconsin has lost more than 99 percent of its prairies and oak savannas. Above: the Dunnville Wildlife Area.
Since European settlement, Wisconsin has lost more than 99 percent of its prairies
and oak savannas. Above: the Dunnville Wildlife Area.

Jonathon Carver was heading north on the Mississippi River, sketching maps and taking notes. On assignment for the British Crown, his goal was to explore the Upper Mississippi. His crew ventured east and paddled upstream on what is now known as the Chippewa River. Somewhere between Durand and Eau Claire, Carver described an open and vast landscape, “Came to the great meadows or plains... One might travel all day and only see now and then a small pleasant groves of oak... This country is covered with grass which affords excellent pasturage for the buffalo which here are very plenty. Could see them at a distance under the shady oaks... and sometimes a drove of an hundred...” 

It turns out this was not the Northwoods. This was a place of wide horizons; a patchwork of oak savannas, prairies, open woodlands
and a few occasional forests.

It was 1767 when Carver visited the Chippewa Valley. His description runs contrary to today’s narrative that our region used to be heavily forested; a myth that likely originated due to Eau Claire’s fabled history as a lumber town. But, most of the logs that were milled here floated downriver from the north, not from the Chippewa Valley. It turns out that this was not the Northwoods. This was a place of wide horizons; a patchwork of oak savannas, prairies, open woodlands and a few occasional forests. This was a place where buffalo roamed.

Scenes like Carver’s description are now hard to come by. Since European settlement, Wisconsin has lost more than 99 percent of its prairies and oak savannas. From a conservation perspective, that’s a staggering loss. The biological diversity of a healthy remnant prairie or savanna might rival that of a tropical rainforest. Spend enough time rooting around in one of these places and you could count as many as 200 plant species, not to mention abundant insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. 

Much has changed. Some prairies and savannas have been converted to cropland or planted with trees but most, however, have been starved by a lack of fire. Before European settlers arrived, fire was common in the Chippewa Valley and the upper Midwest. Some Native American tribes dubbed fire “the red buffalo”. Fire rejuvenated the grasses, incinerated young trees, recycled nutrients, and maintained the essential character of the prairie and savanna system. As fire was suppressed, unburned prairies and savannas sprouted with saplings and quickly transformed into scrubby young forests. 

Today, the Chippewa Valley has one-quarter of Wisconsin’s remaining prairies and savannas, making our own backyard a priority area for the conservation of these rare habitats. Agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and non-profit organizations like The Prairie Enthusiasts are working hard to restore the last remnants by removing trees, controlling invasive species, and reintroducing fire. And, we’re very lucky for that, because there are places where you can still glimpse fragments of the same Chippewa Valley that Carver saw 250 years ago.

Take the Dunnville Wildlife Area, for example, in southern Dunn County, where you can stand, look around in all directions, and see nothing but a panorama grass and sky. The vistas are only occasionally interrupted by groves of oak trees. It’s the kind of environment that can seriously play on your senses. In summer, the sunlight floods down around you.  The wide open space begs your eyes to stretch their gaze and scan the horizon. While hiking, sparrows erupt from the grass floor and land on a perch of big bluestem, emitting a song of insect-like buzzes and trills. The humidity can be stifling. With a good imagination, you can look out and picture where a herd of grazing bison would fit neatly into the scene.

Located just south of Downsville, the Dunnville Wildlife Area is owned by the Wisconsin DNR and is over 4,000 acres in size. It lies at the confluence of the Chippewa and Red Cedar Rivers. The Red Cedar River State Bike Trail runs through it and offers an easy means to explore the area. A system of trails also offer hiking opportunities. Dunnville is open to year-round hunting and trapping.

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