Know Your Nature Preserve from Your Natural Area

Hikers, campers and foragers all share a pursuit of natural spaces where they can practice their recreation of choice, so whether they survey a map, flip through a newspaper or scan internet search results, words such as “nature preserve” and “state park” usually command their attention. But beyond checking the accommodations, amenities and rules related to individual places of interest, people may not think twice about why different names exist for designating natural areas. To make matters even more confusing, Google Maps doesn’t always label destinations accurately. 

Official designations are not random, however: Each type of nature-protecting organization has a relatively consistent means of establishment, purpose for the land it protects and set of rules for public use. 

According to Door County Land Trust, 10% of the county’s 300,000 acres fall under permanent protection. Overlapping state and local agencies own those 31,000 acres, often managing them in partnership with various educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. 

For example, The Ridges Sanctuary, an entity that owns its property, falls under Wisconsin’s State Natural Areas Program. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and The Nature Conservancy share ownership and management of the Mink River Estuary. Kangaroo Lake is both a nature preserve and a natural area. The Peninsula Park White Cedar Forest is a State Natural Area within a state park. 

Confused? Let’s break down these categories.

State Natural Areas such as the Mink River Estuary provide critical habitat for endangered species, including the rare queen’s lady’s slipper orchid. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

State Natural Areas

The DNR defines natural areas as the “last remaining vestiges of Wisconsin’s native landscape that have escaped extensive alteration, or that have substantially recovered from disturbance over time.” 

The state’s program for protecting State Natural Areas (SNAs) is the oldest in the nation. For 70 years, it has acquired 406,000 acres of native landscapes, geological formations and archaeological sites. More than one-third of SNAs stem from agreements with nonprofits, educational institutions and government agencies. The DNR acquires the rest through land it already manages or directly from donations and willing sellers. 

Door County boasts 29 State Natural Areas, most of which allow public access. SNAs don’t suit “intensive recreation” such as camping and biking, but they do accommodate hiking, skiing, watercraft access, bird watching and nature study. Formal scientific research and educational uses require permits. DNR-owned SNAs allow hunting and foraging for edible fruits, nuts, mushrooms, watercress and asparagus, but collecting all other natural materials is prohibited without permission. 

Most State Natural Areas lack facilities and other amenities; the trails typically consist of undeveloped footpaths; and parking is often limited to just a small gravel area. The DNR website outlines each SNA’s ownership status and public accessibility, offers property maps, and  details management plans for each site. 

Nature Preserves 

Door County Land Trust manages 14 nature preserves, five of which also have SNA designation. A conservation land trust is a nonprofit organization that acquires land to preserve it and limit commercial development on it. 

Similar to SNAs, Door County’s nature preserves come from land donations or purchases that the Land Trust makes. It also enters into conservation easements with private-property owners: agreements that protect land but don’t usually grant public access to it because the landowner still owns the land. The Land Trust also facilitates land transfers to other long-term-care entities. 

Organizations such as Crossroads at Big Creek and The Ridges Sanctuary consider their properties to be nature preserves, but they are not affiliated with the Land Trust. 

Door County Land Trust preserves welcome hiking and cross-country skiing, but they prohibit biking, horseback riding and collecting any natural materials. Most allow hunting and water access. Some preserves have basic, designated parking areas on gravel, but others require roadside parking. It’s critical to prevent the spread of invasive species at nature preserves – and all natural areas, for that matter – so Land Trust properties have boot brushes for hikers to use at trail entrances. 

State Parks

As the word “park” implies, state parks center around providing a public service. Unlike preserves and natural areas, where land preservation comes first, the nation’s state-parks system is focused on maintaining places of historical significance and natural beauty that also possess great recreational potential for citizens’ enjoyment and education. The DNR manages state parks, often more exclusively than it manages SNAs. 

Four of the five state parks along the peninsula allow hiking, camping and hunting, and all except Rock Island welcome biking. State parks have more potential to include accessible amenities, such as the Eagle Tower ramp at Peninsula State Park. Organizations such as Door County Land Trust arrange guided hikes and other events at preserves and natural areas, but state parks offer more extensive events and educational programming and usually have a nature center at the entrance. 

State Wildlife Areas such as Mud Lake support activities ranging from hunting to wildlife viewing. Photo by Jessica Gatzow.

State Wildlife Areas 

Similar to SNAs, the DNR manages State Wildlife Areas. These offer fauna-centric recreational opportunities because they often feature specific wildlife more extensively than SNAs. Door County has two such areas: Mud Lake and Gardner Swamp. The available activities include hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, birding, berry picking and wildlife viewing.

National Wildlife Refuges

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service manages National Wildlife Refuges fundamentally for wildlife conservation, “from the purposes for which each refuge was established, to the recreational activities offered, to the resource-management tools used.” 

Door County is home to the Wisconsin Islands Wilderness Area: 29 acres consisting of Gravel Island, Spider Island and Hog Island. The Gravel Island Refuge is off limits completely as a critical nesting ground for migratory birds. 

All Wisconsin state parks and the protected places associated with them require vehicle-admission stickers, which are valid through the end of each year. Most other types of protected areas don’t charge entrance fees, but organizations such as The Ridges Sanctuary and The Nature Conservancy rely on donations to facilitate their conservation efforts. 

Beyond the categories, Door County’s protected areas all require conservation care at the individual level. Whether managed by Door County Land Trust, the DNR or a combination of groups, scientists and land-management experts assess what each acre of protected land and water needs to thrive. 

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