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For those who explore the Wisconsin/Michigan border country near the Menominee River, it's a dream come true: Acres of forest, a rushing river, riotous waterfalls. Home to timber wolves, black bears, and eagles. Lots of ticks, too, unfortunately.
It's a gift of land: 1,920 acres just south of Quiver Falls and west of the Menominee River in Marinette County, Wis., and 2,530 acres on the eastern side in Menominee County, Mich. Now known as the Menominee River Natural Resource Area, the land is being donated to the two states by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, helped by the technical expertise of the Conservation Fund.
The Mellon Foundation frequently assists state and federal agencies with conservation efforts. The Pittsburgh-based group is spending about $3 million for the entire tract and will lease the land to the states for three years before presenting it as a gift.
The area, which includes about five miles of the Menominee River, three miles of the Pemebonwon River in Wisconsin and over a mile of Pemene Creek in Michigan, adjoins the Escanaba River State Forest in Michigan and Marinette County forest lands in our state. Together, the properties offer mile after mile of unbroken habitat for wildlife and plant species.
For seven decades, the land has been owned by the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, which planned to develop it for hydroelectric power. But fossil fuels dominated the industry for many years, and by the time hydro was again seriously considered, the environmental obstacles were deemed "almost insurmountable," according to Ed Newman, WPSC's director of environmental services.
Over the years, the utility proved to be an excellent land steward, helping restore the forests that had been cut during the northern logging boom of the late 19th century. Though much of the area was logged, some stands remain that never felt an axe.
Dan Deacon, a farmer and mail carrier from Faithorn, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, traces his local roots back to the Civil War. Very little has changed in the 50 years since he first explored these lands as a boy, Deacon says. Remnants of a dam hand-built by workers of the Menominee River Boom Co. nearly a hundred years ago can still be spied at Quiver Falls, at the northern end of the new Resource Area, he says.
The five-mile reach of river between Quiver Falls and Pemene Falls is quick and boisterous in places, edged by rocky bluffs on the Michigan side with woods and swamps beyond. Other stretches of the Menominee are calm and wide, a canoeist's paradise framed by overhanging trees of emerald green.
No homes were ever built here, and almost no roads, either – most byways are just the remnants of old logging trails. That's the way Deacon likes it.
"If you have to have a motorbike or a four-wheeler, maybe you shouldn't go," he says.
"It's a great place to fish, hunt ducks, or just walk around and look," he continues. "And you can pick the wintergreen off the rocks – not all wintergreen comes from a pharmacy." Berries of all kinds abound, too, though you might find yourself competing for them with a black bear or other animal.
During the 1800s the Menominee River was frequently awash in logs – white and Norway pine milled into lumber for settlers' homes in Wisconsin, northern Illinois and the Great Plains. Those years probably were the most frenzied in the river's history. Ten centuries ago, the calmer waters sustained generations of Native Americans who camped along the water, fished for sturgeon, and hunted bear and deer.
Several sites along Pemene Creek and Pemene Falls suggest seasonal Native American fishing camps or villages, according to archaeologists. The local people would canoe downstream to camp at the mouth of the Menominee, and return upriver in late summer. Winters were spent at inland lakes to the west.
The hunting and fishing still is good, though don't look to Dan Deacon to tell you his favorite spots. Some subjects are best kept secret, he says.
When public meetings were recently held to discuss the proposed land transfer, Deacon says he was a bit surprised at his neighbors' sentiment. "People I wouldn't have thought were that concerned about the environment were all in support, and wanted it to remain in local ownership. The power company listened to them," he says.
So, from the people of Wisconsin and Michigan, thanks to Wisconsin Public Service Corporation for taking care of the land and giving us first dibs. And thanks to the Mellon Foundation and the Conservation Fund for the money and skill in making a good deal for everyone.
Katherine Esposito is a staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources.