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Glacial Lake Wisconsin Sand Plain

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About the Glacial Lake Wisconsin Sand Plain

The Glacial Lake Wisconsin Sand Plain is a large, flat area in central Wisconsin with sandy soils that originated under Glacial Lake Wisconsin as the glaciers melted following the most recent glacial period.

This area is mostly extremely flat, although there are some gorges along streams and a few small areas of locally hilly features, including sand buttes, of glacial origin. Soils here are mostly coarse sands, including ones that are excessively-drained and drought-prone, but there are also areas where organic muck and occasionally clay leads to poorly-drained soils. Soils throughout tend to be acidic and low in mineral nutrients. There are numerous natural wetlands, but few natural lakes.

This area originally supported a mix of different vegetation types. Drier areas, where the water table was farther from the surface, supported mostly jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and jack oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis), occurring in closed-canopy forests on the richer sites and open barrens on the drier ones. Well-drained areas protected from the most frequent, severe fire, supported eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and red pine (Pinus resinosa); these areas were more common in the west, and in the far west there were a few areas where other oaks were dominant. Natural fire was the dominant disturance in all of these communities. Where the water table was close to the surface, and on poorly-drained sites, there were conifer swamps and open wetlands. Conifer swamps supported tamarack (Larix laricina) and black spruce (Picea mariana). The calcium-loving northern white-cedar (Thuja occidentalis), common in the broader surroundings, was conspicuously absent from this region due to the high soil acidity and low calcium content. There were also extensive areas of marsh and sedge meadows, with dominant species including bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata). These communities were maintained through seasonal flooding.

Much of this region has been altered from its original state. Numerous artificial lakes have been constructed, flooding areas that originally supported wetlands, often for the intent of cranberry cultivation. The region now is largely agricultural, producing mainly cranberries, strawberries, and potatoes. On dry ground, irrigation is used to allow cultivation of crops that would not normally survive on the drought-prone soils. Parts of the more poorly-drained portions of this region are still left as natural wetland, and there are also large expanses of wild forest, mostly dominated by pine, on the drier ground. Fire suppression, both intentional and as a side-effect of habitat fragmentation and irrigation, has decreased the portion of open barrens and shifted the balance of species away from jack pine and jack oak, and towards more white and red pine and other species less tolerant of severe fire.

Most of this region is sparsely populated, but it contains the small city of Stevens Point, and some smaller cities including Wisconsin Rapids and Plover. Most of the population in this region centers along the Wisconsin area and there are only small towns elsewhere.

To the east, this region is bordered by the Central Sand Ridges, another sandy region with hillier topography and less extreme drought. To the north, this region borders the Central Wisconsin Undulating Till Plain, a region of irregular plains with richer soils and more agriculture. To the southwest, this region borders the Blufflands and Coulees of the Driftless Area, a region with more rugged topography that escaped glaciation.

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