Publicly-owned lands are probably the purest form of protection. People may disagree about how they should be used and managed, but as part owners, they have a say. Privately-owned lands are ultimately at the whim of at most, a few individuals — unless the lands are subject to a conservation easement, a legal, permanent contract in which the owner is usually paid for giving up development rights in perpetuity.
Public and protected lands perform two primary roles: places for outdoor recreation and preservation of nature.
To get a grasp of the public lands in the St. Croix River watershed, I used the U.S. Geological Survey’s Protected Areas Database (PAD). In my review, the information is fairly accurate, though sometimes incomplete. There are numerous public lands, mainly small local parks and the like, that are not included in this database. But the bulk of the public land ownership is there, especially the federal, state, and county lands.
Among the lands are some beloved places, home to unique landscapes and cherished wildlife. There are the marshes and waterfowl of Crex Meadows, the rushing rivers of St. Croix State Park, the unique habitat of state-designated natural areas, and much more. The watershed includes significant tracts of forest owned and managed by Wisconsin counties of Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, and Sawyer.
Public ownership does not guarantee recreation or conservation are the primary objective. Most of the publicly-owned land in the watershed is managed for “multiple use,” which can include logging and mining. Indeed, much is county forest, often managed primarily for timber production in pine plantations. This provides some protection and public access, but does not offer much diversity in scenery or wildlife habitat.
The amount of land known to be managed for biodiversity, which includes natural areas and state and county parks, is half the “multiple use” lands. They might still allow significant human intervention, including the suppression of fires that are necessary for a fully functioning ecosystem. (Note: I find the “disturbance suppression” information in the PAD to be particularly imprecise; some lands that are managed with fire are not in the database.)
The renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson proposed that humans must protect half of Earth to keep it healthy and able to sustain our species. “Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on Earth,” he wrote.
Similarly, a global coalition of more than 100 conservation organizations has launched the Campaign For Nature, seeking to protect 30 percent of the globe by 2030. Shortly after taking office last January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing his administration to look for ways to protect 30 percent of America’s lands by 2030.
By these measures, the St. Croix River watershed is a long way from protected. All the lands in the PAD located in the basin add up to about 24 percent of the watershed. But, that includes county forests managed for logging, and even golf courses. The lands in the watershed with some known biodiversity mandate add up to 416 square miles, five percent of the watershed. Land managed for logging and other extractive purposes equals 15 percent.