When Jim and Jane Watermolen of Abrams purchased a large tract of land in far northern Wisconsin 25 years ago, they wanted it to remain undeveloped. That’s why they donated a conservation easement on their land to the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust.
“We felt very strongly that we never wanted it to be subdivided,” says Jane Watermolen, now retired. “We chose NEWLT because we knew that they would monitor the restrictions that we had placed on the property in perpetuity.”
The Watermolens’ 626 wooded acres is one example of the 5,000-plus acres NEWLT has preserved across 13 counties. And while that specific land will not be open to the public, many NEWLT lands are — including its recently opened preservation project, the Wequiock Creek Natural Area in the Town of Scott in Brown County.
NEWLT’s mission is simple but forward-thinking. “We’re looking to collaborate to save land,” says executive director Deborah Nett. “We’ve protected over 50 properties … and that comprises about 5,000 acres of land throughout Northeast Wisconsin.”
NEWLT looks for lands that are impactful for the community or the environment. “We’re still at a point where we can look for what’s special,” says Nett adding that one of NEWLT’s proudest achievements was adding land to its Mt. Morris Conservancy in 2009, which provides a natural habitat for the federally endangered Karner Blue butterfly.
NEWLT was founded in 1996 to preserve and restore the natural heritage of lands and waters in Northeast Wisconsin through partnerships in land conservancy and resource management. In 1998, Pat Timm donated a conservation easement on 60 acres of private land, creating NEWLT’s first conservancy.
Nett says that NEWLT both buys land outright from owners and works with other owners who donate a conservation easement to the nonprofit organization. “They own the land, we own the easement (or rights to the land),” Nett says.
While some landowners seek out NEWLT to preserve their land, the organization also looks at pre-identified “special” places that are still available. “We sort of gently try to build a relationship,” Nett says.
A handful of NEWLT lands are available for public usage, including the Guckenburg-Sturm Preserve — 48 acres located along the west shore of Little Lake Butte des Morts in Winnebago County. The area’s marsh and surrounding floodplain forest represents one of the last remaining pristine, open cattail marshes found along the Lower Fox River drainage.
“We were able to build a boardwalk (at the site) in 2012,” Nett says. “This was a great opportunity that increased conservation and encouraged the community to come out and enjoy nature.”
The 73-acre Wequiock Creek Natural Area is NEWLT’s latest addition. Nett says she’s worked closely with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Cofrin Center and the Town of Scott to protect the land, which is “an exceptional, archaeologically significant” region.
To secure the property, NEWLT raised $1.2 million through individual donors, foundations and state and federal grants. The latter included a $438,000 federal coastal grant.
“Getting one here is a huge deal,” Nett says. “You normally don’t see coastal money going to anywhere but the ocean coasts in our nation, so to get a coastal grant here in Wisconsin is really something. It speaks volumes for how high of a priority protection of this land was.”
The land is located adjacent to the Point au Sable peninsula and is part of the 1.9-mile corridor that connects the important Point au Sable coastal wetland to Wequiock Falls. The preserve will provide public recreation activities, trails and bird watching, but it will also offer college students and faculty the ability to conduct research. The preserve is now owned by NEWLT, but Nett says it may be offered to the Town of Scott and UW-Green Bay for their purposes.
Two other noteworthy properties protected by NEWLT are the West Shore Preserve, an ephemeral wetland property along Green Bay’s west shore, and the Red Banks Alvar State Natural Area in Brown County.
The West Shore Preserve contains 32.5 acres of forested wetland, a seasonal creek that provides spawning habitat for northern pike and 1.5 acres of upland forest. The 143-acre Red Banks Alvar Natural Area is Wisconsin’s largest and best example of a Great Lakes Alvar community, a rare community type that occurs on flat limestone or dolomitic bedrock with shallow soils. Alvar areas are found in only five regions in the world.
Preserving these lands is key for the future of conservation going forward, Nett says. “Once you invest in a place … there’s energy around it; you can get more to do more.”