State of the Beach/State Reports/WI/Beach Access

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Wisconsin Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality74
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill2-
Shoreline Structures6 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas55
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


The laws or regulations that guide coastal access policies in Wisconsin include:

Public Trust (state jurisdiction) in Wisconsin extends up to the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM). That is: "the point on the bank or shore where the water is present often enough so that the lake or streambed begins to look different from the upland. Specifically, the OHWM is the point on the bank or shore up to which the water, by its presence, wave action or flow, leaves a distinct mark on the shore or bank. The mark may be indicated by erosion, destruction of or change in vegetation or other easily recognizable characteristics."[1]

Following is a discussion of the state's Public Trust Doctrine:

Wisconsin lakes and rivers are public resources, owned in common by all Wisconsin citizens under the state's Public Trust Doctrine. Based on the state constitution, this doctrine has been further defined by case law and statute. It declares that all navigable waters are "common highways and forever free", and held in trust by the Department of Natural Resources.

Wisconsin citizens have pursued legal and legislative action to clarify or change how this body of law is interpreted and implemented. As a result, the public interest, once primarily interpreted to protect public rights to transportation on navigable waters, has been broadened to include protected public rights to water quality and quantity, recreational activities, and scenic beauty.(1)

All Wisconsin citizens have the right to boat, fish, hunt, ice skate, and swim on navigable waters, as well as enjoy the natural scenic beauty of navigable waters, and enjoy the quality and quantity of water that supports those uses.(2)

Wisconsin law recognizes that owners of lands bordering lakes and rivers - "riparian" owners - hold rights in the water next to their property. These riparian rights include the use of the shoreline, reasonable use of the water, and a right to access the water. However, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court has ruled that when conflicts occur between the rights of riparian owners and public rights, the public's rights are primary and the riparian owner's secondary.(1)

Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine requires the state to intervene to protect public rights in the commercial or recreational use of navigable waters. The DNR, as the state agent charged with this responsibility, can do so through permitting requirements for water projects, through court action to stop nuisances in navigable waters, and through statutes authorizing local zoning ordinances that limit development along navigable waterways.

The court has ruled that DNR staff, when they review projects that could impact Wisconsin lakes and rivers, must consider the cumulative impacts of individual projects in their decisions. "A little fill here and there may seem to be nothing to become excited about. But one fill, though comparatively inconsequential, may lead to another, and another, and before long a great body may be eaten away until it may no longer exist. Our navigable waters are a precious natural heritage, once gone, they disappear forever," wrote the Wisconsin State Supreme Court justices in their opinion resolving Hixon v. PSC.(2)

(1) Quick, John. 1994. The Public Trust Doctrine in Wisconsin. Wisconsin Environmental Law Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1.
(2) "Champions of the Public Trust, A History of Water Use in Wisconsin" study guide. 1995. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Water Regulation and Zoning.

Riparian Landowners Versus the Public: The Importance of Roads and Highways for Public Access to Wisconsin's Navigable Waters, by Sarah Williams discusses the potential loss of public-access sites when neighboring landowners seek to have the public-access site discontinued. Wisconsin has passed laws to ensure that the Department of Natural Resources oversees and protects vital public access. However, Ms. Williams argues that more is needed to protect these assets and she suggests changes to the law to protect these valuable resources for future generations.

Ordinarily, just as the shores at the seaside are public land seaward of the mean high water mark, the swath of sand between the waterline and ordinary high water mark of navigable lakes — often defined as the line where vegetation starts — is held in public trust.(1) However, a 1923 Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling rejected application of the doctrine, holding that the public’s right to lakes is restricted to uses associated with water navigation and that lakefront property owners have “exclusive privileges” to the land between their property line and the water’s edge.(2) Thus, private adjacent landowners may exclude others from this public land, and as lake level drops the amount of property that they exclusively may use increases.(2)

(1) Egan, Dan. Exclusive "Public" Beaches Rile Some: Michigan Court Case Renews Wisconsin’s Debate over Public Access, Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, Apr. 17, 2006.
(2) Doemel v. Jantz, 193 N.W. 393. (Wis. 1923).

The 2011-2015 Needs Assessment notes:

"Private residential development is an issue primarily on the Lake Michigan and Green Bay coasts. Typically issues arise from new development of private lands that have provided unofficial access to coastal resources. Also neighboring properties encroach on poorly identified road ends and public rights of way."

Programs for acquisition of public lands include:

  • Land and Water Conservation Fund (Public Law 88-578 (1964)). The objective of the program is to encourage creation and interpretation of high quality, outdoor recreational opportunities. Funds for this program are spent on the acquisition of land for public outdoor recreational areas and preservation of water frontage and open space, and the development of public outdoor park and recreational areas and their support facilities. Funding is available for inland and coastal projects. For the first time in the past few years, funds have been appropriated for this program.
  • The Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson Stewardship Program (s. 23.0917, Wis. Stats.). The purpose of this program is to provide funding for land acquisition for conservation and recreational purposes, property development and local assistance, and bluff protection. The program began fiscal year 2001 and provides $404 million for buying and preserving land over the next 10 years.
  • Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program (16 USC sec. 2501 et seq.). The Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR). Enacted in 1978, UPARR’s purpose is to provide direct federal assistance to urban localities for rehabilitation of critically needed recreation facilities. The law also encourages systematic local planning and commitment to continuing operation and maintenance of recreation programs, sites, and facilities. Only cities and urban counties meeting established criteria are eligible for assistance. In Federal Fiscal Year 2001 there was about $19 million available through the program.

The 2006 Assessment lists the following "Section 309 Programmatic Objectives":

  1. Improve public access through regulatory, statutory and legal systems.
  2. Acquire, improve and maintain public access sites to meet current and future demand through the use of innovative funding and acquisition techniques.
  3. Develop or enhance a Coastal Public Access Management Plan which takes into account the provision of public access to all users of Coastal areas of recreational, historical, aesthetic, ecological and cultural value.
  4. Minimize potential adverse impacts of public access on coastal resources and private property rights through appropriate protection measures.

The WCMP has helped to fund a number of projects that address public access needs in the State’s coastal zone. Examples of public access projects funded by the WCMP during NOAA's 2004-2008 evaluation period include:

Much of the WCMP federal funding for land acquisition for public access is matched with Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Funds, administered through WDNR.

Site Inventory

Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, "Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs, Coastal Management 27:219-237 report that the percentage of publicly-owned shoreline in Wisconsin is unknown.

This same document identifies 268 public access sites. This corresponds to about one public access site for every 3 miles of shoreline.

The 2006 Assessment states: "Since the last assessment a number of significant initiatives have resulted in steps to promote recreational opportunities within Wisconsin’s coastal area."

The 2006 Assessment identifies 101 scenic vistas, 192 public beach/shoreline access sites, and 250 parks along the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines. The 2011-2015 Assessment indicated 193 public beach/shoreline access sites.

Information obtained from Wisconsin Coastal Management Program staff indicates that, taking a beach as an access point, there are on average 4.3 miles between beach access points. This number includes both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior beach access points (192 beaches for 820 miles of shoreline). Including boat access or fishing piers as separate points would decrease this number to between 2 and 3 miles.

A great new online coastal access resource is University of Wisconsin Sea Grant's Wisconsin Coastal Guide. From this site you can click on "Beaches" and then a particular beach to get a map and for many locations a 360 degree panorama.

The Wisconsin Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) also tracks recreational opportunities and identifies essential issues that affect future use and recommendations. SCORP is updated every five years, and all supply, demand and recreational use data is compiled at the regional level and then combined for the state.

As part of its role in providing Coastal Performance Measurements to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program is working to compile a comprehensive coastal access database.

As part of establishing a comprehensive beach monitoring program, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hired field staff who drove the entire coast of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior searching for and visiting beaches. They identified 173 public beaches along the two lakes, and staff literally walked the coast using global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to geo-locate each beach. County maps showing the location of each beach were developed. The maps identify coastal recreation waters, points of access by the public, length of beach, and possible sources of pollution.

Each spring the WCMP awards matching grants to improve public access. Local units of governments in the 15 coastal counties, state agencies, tribal governments, regional planning commissions, universities, colleges, technical schools, and nonprofit organizations are all eligible. A request for proposals is made in late fall each year. Eligible public access projects include construction or improvement of walkways, fishing piers, viewing decks and waterfront parks, and the restoration of historic buildings. Land may be purchased for waterfront public access and preservation using these grants. Public access project applications receive higher priority if they include an educational or environmental protection component.

The Lake Superior Public Access Study provides shoreline access information, maps and photos for the south shore of Lake Superior.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources maintains a very comprehensive Website that reports on locations and attributes of beaches that are in state parks.

Some coastal access and trails information is available through the Wisconsin Harbor Towns Guide and the Great Wisconsin Birding & Nature Trail Guides.

The USACE took oblique images of the entire Great Lakes shoreline (USA portion only) in 2012 by plane and has provided the images for free online. Once you’ve opened the webpage, select a Great Lake (or river) of interest to you by checking the appropriate box in the left-hand window pane. You may select or deselect a particular state as well. To view an image of interest to you, zoom into the area on the Google satellite map (in middle), and then select a spot along one of the colored lines that you’d like to view. Note that each colored line represents an individual pass of an airplane. Once you select a spot along the line, a window pane on the right will appear showing you the image of that exact spot on the map. Double clicking the image will enlarge it and offer metadata. If you scroll up and down and select different images in the right-hand window pane, your camera icon on the satellite map will move along with your picture change.

Beach Attendance Records

Information on beach attendance in Wisconsin was not readily available.

State Park attendance records are kept by the Department of Natural Resources. In this manner, those parks where the primary attraction is the beach would have attendance records. Otherwise, attendance data for beaches is not kept.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

Information regarding the economic value of coastal recreation opportunities is avaliable at:

An analysis of jobs in the Great Lakes region by Michigan Sea Grant published in 2011 shows that the Lakes are key to the economy of the Great Lakes states in many ways. More than 1.5 million Great Lakes-related jobs generated $62 billion in wages, in 2009. For the complete analysis, see: Great Lakes Jobs Report (PDF).

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

The 2001 Assessment concludes: "The programs funding public access projects in Wisconsin have been very successful by keeping pace with an increasing demand for lakeshore access."

It also notes that surveys conducted as part of the 1999 State Comprehensive Recreation Plan (SCORP) indicate that multiple recreational activities are competing for the same limited recreational resources; changing land uses, ownership, and regulations are reducing recreational opportunities; and financial resources are increasingly limited. "Based on the survey results... public access is needed along Wisconsin's Great Lakes coasts. People feel that there is an increasing demand for coastal boardwalks and trails, parks, public beaches, and fishing piers."

The 2006 Assessment notes:

The latest State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreational Plan is directed to:

  • Identify needs and opportunities for outdoor recreation providers to develop new facilities, programs, services, upgrade of existing facilities, and improve all existing and future facilities above the minimum standards set for disabled accessibility,
  • Provide valid data describing outdoor recreation needs for use in determining future planning, strategies and policies for public and private outdoor recreation land uses,
  • Assess the needs of all outdoor recreation participants in the state,
  • Create a repository for recreation data collection and dissemination and,
  • Qualify the State of Wisconsin for assistance from the LWCF programs and provide a tool for prioritizing the use of the federal funds for the acquisition, development, and renovation of outdoor recreation facilities.

The plan will include a survey which will examine what kinds of recreation state residents participate in, how often and where they participate, and recreational behavior associated with different demographic characteristics (e.g., race, age, education, and gender). The plan uses a Recreation Location Quotient (RLQ) to standardize supply components and measure the relative difference in regional recreational characteristic as compared to some reference region.

The plan created Recreation Groupings (Marcouiller et al. 2004) which include:

  • Land Based
  • River based
  • Lake Based
  • Warm Weather
  • Cold Weather

The Wisconsin Land Legacy Report is an inventory of places critical in meeting Wisconsin's future conservation and recreation needs. At the request of the Natural Resources Board, the Department of Natural Resources undertook a study to identify places that would be critical in meeting Wisconsin's conservation and recreation needs over the next fifty years. The places described in this report were identified through a series of public and staff meetings held around the state to determine what types and characteristics of land are believed to be most important in conserving critical natural resources and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.

Wisconsin Coastal Management Program staff believes that although there is sufficient beach access, beach parking and public transportation to meet current average demands, all three parameters fall short of meeting current peak demand and that beach access and beach parking will fail to meet average demand in ten years unless additional capacity is added.

The state has conducted studies as to what recreational activities and experiences people prefer, but these studies did not specifically address beach activities.

Public Education Program

State agencies or organizations that have information on coastal recreation opportunities and locations include:

Guidebooks include:

Contact Info

Mike Friis, Program Manager
Phone: 608-267-7982

Gregg Breese, Shoreland Team Leader
Phone: 608-261-6430


  1. Mike Friis, Nonpoint Source Pollution/Public Access Programs & Federal Consistency Coordinator, Wisconsin Coastal Management Program. Personal communication. February 27, 2003

State of the Beach Report: Wisconsin
Wisconsin Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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