Barrens in Burnett County

This section of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area lies in Burnett County. An effort is underway to create an auto tour through the Barrens, part of the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape that runs diagonally across the state from the Bayfield Peninsula southwest to St. Croix Falls.

A collaboration of not-for-profit ecological and historical organizations has been awarded a Wisconsin Humanities Council grant to engage local communities and individuals in creating a tour of the barrens landscape of Northwest Wisconsin.

A self-guided “auto trail” is being developed as a way to explore both the ecological and historical richness of the region. Local engagement meetings are being held throughout the project area to gather insight on the features, places, memories, and stories that express the uniqueness, diversity, history, and interest of the Northwest Sands to both residents and visitors. “The organizing feature of the auto trail route is utilizing modern roads that most closely approximate the original St. Paul to Bayfield stage coach route, established by Henry Rice, St. Paul business person, as a means to promote the development of Bayfield,” explained Brian Finstad, project director. “The stage route utilized the “sand barrens” as a travel route, being largely high, dry, and open land, and on the perfect trajectory between the Chequamegon Bay Region and the St. Croix.

“Prior to the stage line, a Native American footpath existed along this same trajectory since time immemorial,” Finstad said.

The Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape is one of 16 regions in the state defined by its ecological attributes and management opportunities. The region stretches from the Bayfield Peninsula southwest to St. Croix Falls, covering 1,956 square miles. It is considered ecologically significant as home to the rare Karner blue butterfly, Kirtland’s warbler, and habitat-specific sharp-tailed grouse.

The sands that characterize the barrens result from the glacial and Precambrian geology. The region’s rivers, lakes, wetlands, and sands are within the ancestral home of the Ojibwe, where indigenous foods like wild rice, cranberries, maple sap, and blueberries grow.

Robert Hanson, Northwest Sands wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, has encouraged and supported the project from its inception.

“A participant in this historic tour through the landscape will gain insight into how the land, plants, and animals interacted under a more natural time,” said Hanson, “including how fires would burn, altering the landscape into a more open growth form of habitat.”

The area has deep connections to the history of Wisconsin, including the native foot path from Madeline Island to the Mississippi River, development of the fur trading and logging economy of the Upper Great Lakes, a major transportation route between St. Paul and Bayfield from the 17th century, and the birthplace of several historic conservation initiatives that impact the region today.

“The Northwest Sands Auto Tour project has already sparked connections and relationships across various communities, organizations, and disciplines. The project is firmly rooted in the history, culture, ecology, and geology of the region,” said Janet Seymour, outreach director, Wisconsin Historical Society. “Each community can share stories and perspectives that connect people and places along the route that crosses the Northwest Sands.”

The Wisconsin Humanities Council awarded the grant to project collaborators in 2020 with an extension offered due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The grant is being managed by Friends of the Bird Sanctuary, a non-for-profit conservation organization with a mission of barrens conservation and education. Included in the collaboration are Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Friends of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area, Friends of Crex Meadows, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Historical Society, with guidance from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Department of Public History, members of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and several local historical organizations throughout the region.

“The joy of the humanities is that they help us see the world from a new perspective,” said Dena Wortzel, executive director, Wisconsin Humanities Council. “That’s exactly what this wonderful new auto tour will do, enriching understanding of the diversity of Wisconsin for residents and tourists alike. We’re so pleased to be able to lend support.”

Those wanting to learn more about the project, including how to share stories, memories, and reflections of Northwest Sands history, ecology, and way of life can contact Brian Finstad (, Jane Anklam (, or Dave Evenson, (

Local Engagement Sessions are being held both live and virtually.

Wisconsin Humanities Council

The Wisconsin Humanities Council is a leading statewide resource for librarians, teachers, museum educators, and civic leaders, who drive entertaining and informative programs using history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.

The council also awards more than $175,000 a year over seven rounds of grants to local organizations piloting humanities programming.

For more information on Wisconsin Humanities Council:, HumanitiesCouncil or Twitter at @WiHumanties.

(Copyright © 2021 APG Media)

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