Places We Protect

Central Sands Priority Area


A green grassland dotted by trees stretches to the horizon with a hill silhouetted in the background.
Quincy Bluff & Wetlands View from the bluff at Quincy Bluff & Wetlands State Natural Area in the Central Sands region. © Harold E. Malde

The Central Sands is a 2.2-million-acre landscape that is a unique mix of sandy plains, wetlands, oak and pine barrens, and rocky mesas and buttes.



Scoured by glaciers and covered by the waters of Glacial Lake Wisconsin for thousands of years, the Central Sands region of Wisconsin is a unique mix of sandy plain, wetlands, oak and pine barrens, and scattered mesas and buttes that once stood as islands in the glacial lake. Historically, extensive wetlands occurred across the Central Sands region. The area also experienced frequent and wide-ranging fires that shaped the fire-adapted plant communities, including oak and pine barrens, which once covered 26% of the landscape. 

Today, approximately 25% of the 2.2-million-acre Central Sands Plains ecological landscape is publicly owned and managed by county, state and federal agencies. This protected acreage includes Quincy Bluff and Wetlands State Natural Area, which TNC helped acquire before transferring the land to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for perpetual protection. Outside of the Northwoods, this ecological landscape has the highest percentage of public lands in Wisconsin. 

Within the Central Sands, TNC owns and manages approximately 3,200 acres split amongst five tracts ranging from 200–1,900 acres each. Large, continuous blocks of protected land in the Central Sands have made it possible for mammal species like the timber wolf, black bear, bobcat, and fisher to persist. The region is also home to several rare plants and animals including the Karner blue butterfly, Kirtland’s warbler, slender glass lizard, and greater prairie chicken.




Open year-round, daily from dawn to dusk.


Although there are no established hiking trails, the Central Sands properties are open to bird and wildlife watching, hunting and hiking.

Explore our work in Wisconsin

Photos from the Central Sands

The Central Sands region has a diverse range of habitats, with an abundance of wildlife and plants and breathtaking views.

A male greater prairie chicken walking.
A male Karner blue butterfly perched on blooming wild blue lupine.
A large grassland expanse under a mostly cloudy sky.
A flock of adult and juvenile whooping cranes in a field.
A view of trees and large rock outcroppings overlooking a plains landscape with hills in the distance.
A pink lady slipper orchid in bloom.
A group of fern fiddleheads growing out of a forest floor.
A aerial view of snow-covered wetlands in the Central Sands area.
A red-headed woodpecker perched on the side of a tree trunk.
A lake with a forested bluff in the background.


  • All Nature Conservancy Central Sands tracts are within a 20-minute drive of Friendship, WI.

    Open from dawn to dusk year-round, the Central Sands properties are open to bird watching, some hunting and trapping, and rustic hiking (no designated trails).

    Wildlife to spot includes the endangered Karner blue butterfly and rare Kirtland's warbler. State-listed endangered species such as the slender glass lizard and greater prairie chicken also call the Central Sands area home.

    Mammals such as black bear, timber wolf, fisher, flying squirrels, beaver, and more are found in this region. Winter is an especially good time to sharpen and challenge your wildlife tracking skills in the snow in the Central Sands to see what wildlife tracks you can find.

  • Our vision is of a world where people and nature thrive together. The Nature Conservancy encourages people of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, gender expressions, and abilities to visit our preserves and has a zero-tolerance policy for racism and discrimination.

    There are no marked trails. Good walking shoes or boots, long pants, water and bug spray (in summer) are highly recommended.

    There are no trash facilities on site. Please carry out all garbage. 

    Be aware that this is a large area  and it’s easy to get lost. Cell service may not always be available. Please plan ahead before you visit.

    For more information about visiting the preserve, please follow the link below:


  • Hunting is an important tool in wildlife and habitat management and is allowed in the Central Sands, as permitted. 

    Please visit the link below to learn more about hunting on TNC preserves.

Key Strategies to Support the Landscape

Due to its rich biodiversity and highly varied and connected landscape, the Central Sands region has been identified as one of the areas in Wisconsin that is best able to support plants and animals in the face of climate change. However, a lack of prescribed fire, increased parcelization, and land/forest conversions continue to threaten the health and stability of the ecosystems in the region.

To address these issues, TNC is implementing four primary strategies:

  1. Increasing the pace and scale of public and non-profit land protection within the Central Sand Plains ecological landscape
  2. Expanding the use of prescribed fire (controlled burns) across the landscape 
  3. Assisting public landowners in managing their land to promote climate resilience and support species of conservation need
  4. Partnering to apply resilience-focused conservation practices on private lands through various funding, staffing and programming mechanisms

Long-term Restoration Goals

The long-term goals for TNC’s ownership in the Central Sands are to:

  1. Restore lands to natural community types
  2. Establish pine-oak barrens and maintain sedge meadows and other important wetland features
  3. Increase climate resilience and flora and fauna diversity
  4. Return fire as a recurring disturbance on the landscape
  5. Manage for a suite of species including those that are threatened and endangered

TNC is committed to using sound environmental stewardship to create a landscape that is diverse and resilient to climate change while providing habitat for a wide range of species and functioning similarly to native landscape communities.

If you want to learn more about the Central Sands project, contact TNC in Wisconsin at +1 608-251-8140,

A sedgemeadow bordered by trees under a cloudy sky.
Sedge Meadows Found in the Central Sands region, sedge meadows provide open wetland areas that are ideal habitats for wildlife like sandhill cranes or northern harrier hawks. © Emily Mills/TNC
A grassy area with young trees.
Pine-Oak Barrens A globally imperiled habitat, pine-oak barrens are an open landscape with scattered trees like jack pine and northern pin oak supporting diverse wildlife and plant species. © Hannah Butkiewicz/TNC
Sedge Meadows Found in the Central Sands region, sedge meadows provide open wetland areas that are ideal habitats for wildlife like sandhill cranes or northern harrier hawks. © Emily Mills/TNC
Pine-Oak Barrens A globally imperiled habitat, pine-oak barrens are an open landscape with scattered trees like jack pine and northern pin oak supporting diverse wildlife and plant species. © Hannah Butkiewicz/TNC

Project Highlights

Much progress has been made in the Central Sands region since TNC acquired 3,243 acres in Adams County in February 2022.

The Central Sands management team recently obtained Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®) FSC®- C008922 certification for the Central Sands properties. This includes a completed forest management and restoration plan, available on request, that will guide targeted management efforts consisting of non-native species control, timber harvests, prescribed fire, tree planting and native grass and forb seeding. The FSC® program requires participating forest product producers to complete a forest sustainability plan that demonstrates the environmental, social and economic benefits of enrolled properties. 

Within the Central Sand Plains ecological landscape, TNC is partnering with the American Bird Conservancy and the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to establish and maintain ideal nesting conditions for the Kirtland’s warbler.

These warblers nest in dense stands of young jack pine trees (5-20 years) and have historically relied on natural fire disturbance to support their nesting sites. TNC is currently restoring nesting habitat on one of the Central Sands properties, and through 2026, will conduct timber harvests, employ prescribed fire, plant more than 100,000 jack pine saplings, and seed a variety of native grasses and forbs to support the warblers and other animal species. 

TNC Wisconsin also recently became a partner in the Wisconsin Karner blue butterfly Habitat Conservation Plan

More Places to Explore

Need more nature? Visit The Nature Conservancy's other preserves in Wisconsin.