Why You Should Visit
Local residents used to call this area the "Valley of the Moon." Its scenery is stark with wide-open vistas. It is nearly treeless, consisting of gently rolling grasslands with numerous wetlands and large alkali lakes. The preserve was part of a large eastward-flowing river valley in pre-glacial times, but after the continental glaciers receded the area was left with a cover of sand, gravel, and other glacial drift materials. Numerous prairie pothole wetlands and lakes were also a legacy of the glaciers. Because of water flow and the geologic substrate, some of the lakes are quite alkaline, especially in dry years. Along some parts of the lakes, rocky and salty beaches have formed. These wetlands, lakes, and beaches are what make the Williams preserve important, especially for the animals and plants that utilize those habitats.
The John E. Williams Preserve is located in central North Dakota within eastern McLean County. It can be found approximately three miles east of Turtle Lake, ND or three miles northwest of Mercer.
Plan Your Visit
For more information on visiting this and other North Dakota preserves, check out our Preserve Visitation Guidelines.
The Nature Conservancy currently owns 2,102 acres at the Williams Preserve. Adjacent public land and waters bring the overall site available for visitation to 4,446 acres.
Why the Conservancy Selected This Site
The Conservancy targeted this area for acquisition primarily to protect the breeding population of piping plovers. Also of interest was the area's value as a migratory stopover for sandhill cranes and other waterfowl.
John E. Williams Preserve Map
Piping Plovers Making a Comeback
What to See: Plants
Three major plant communities are found at Williams Preserve. The higher areas were originally covered by a mixed-grass prairie dominated by needle and thread, blue grama, and junegrass. Much of this community was plowed and farmed for small grains before the Conservancy purchased it. These agricultural lands have since been planed back to tame introduced species, primarily crested wheatgrass and smooth brome. Over time the Conservancy plans to restore native mixed-grass species to these old fields. In scattered places across the preserve, however, there are still patches of native prairie that are serving as sources of reintroduction of native plant species.
The saline meadow community is the second type of plant community found at the preserve. This community surrounds the large alkali lake basins and supports a sparse assemblage of species including saltgrass, alkaligrass and western wheatgrass.
The third type of plant community is the deep marsh community associated with the freshwater wetlands of the preserve. Although considered fresh, the chemistry of these wetlands ranges from brackish to very brackish. Several species of bulrushes and sedges are the dominant species.
What to See: Animals
The shallow lakes of the Williams preserve are important migratory stopover areas for birds during both spring and fall migration. Large numbers of waterfowl and sandhill cranes are often present. During the summer breeding season, colonies of gulls and cormorants can be observed on some of the islands in Lake Peterson and Pelican Lake.
The most important species on the preserve is the piping plover. This shorebird, federally-listed as threatened, nests along the edges of the alkali lakes. The Williams Preserve supports one of the largest breeding concentrations of this bird in the world. During May, June, and July, the beach areas along the lakes and wetlands are closed to visitors to prevent disturbance to the nesting birds. Watch a slide show and learn more about how the Conservancy is working to conserve piping plovers on and around John E. Williams Preserve.
Another avian species of interest is the Baird's sparrow. This declining grassland nesting species are found in limited numbers around the preserve. Other nesting species of note include the avocet, willet, northern harrier, and grasshopper sparrow.
There is no potable water at the preserve or other facilities. The town of Turtle Lake is located nearby with facilities.
Conditions are often windy. At certain times of the year, wood ticks can be abundant.
For information about visiting the Williams Preserve, contact our Cross Ranch Office (701) 794-8741. From Turtle Lake, North Dakota head north one mile then east two miles on County Road 27. When County 27 turns north, continue northeast and east on a gravel road after a short jog south. After two miles on the gravel road, the north entrance lies to the right.