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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Increasing kayak, cycle, ATV and bike use create both opportunity and demand. © Vilas County
Increasing kayak, cycle, ATV and bike use create both opportunity and demand. © Vilas County

October 2005

Keeping the North the North

A decade in the making, the Northern Initiatives still point the way toward reasoned development that sustains the character of the Northwoods.

by David J. Daniels, Mark Stokstad, James C. Bishop, Jr., Larry G. Nelson and Lisa Gaumnitz


Some issues died early, others are still emerging
Sustaining big blocks of forest | At water's edge
Wild Lakes | Wild rivers

Just how do you preserve the character and flavor of "the North?" That's the question we were asking in the late 1980s and early '90s in the face of sweeping change across the region. Tribal treaty rights challenged long-held views of fisheries. Dot-com retirees and the booming national economy made lakefront property and undeveloped forestlands hot real estate. Overseas firms started buying up Wisconsin's commercial forests. For the first time in decades, the prospect of mining loomed in several northern communities – a potential boost for local economies but a possible bust for the environment.

Whether you viewed the Department of Natural Resources as protector of the region's unique attributes or the gateway to growth, the agency stood smack in the middle of this perfect storm.

Out of this change was born the Northern Initiatives, a two-year dialog with the public to guide the Department of Natural Resources in managing resources in the northern third of the state.

"When we started the process back in 1994, it was absolutely critical that people who live in the North craft the plan that would guide the North," said Bill Smith, DNR deputy secretary and former director of the DNR's Northwest District and Northern Region. In all, more than 1,000 citizens participated in 20 town meetings and listening sessions. Many more people filled out questionnaires.

The result? According to Smith, the plan that guided DNR management in the ten-year period from 1996-2006 became a map to help define a vision of the North, and a compass instrumental in pointing the way for the Department of Natural Resources and northern communities to work together on issues of common interest.

The Northern Initiatives have been fine-tuned, but have remained remarkably constant over the ten-year plan. During initial listening sessions, people told us to balance a strong economy with ecological and social values. They said preserving the northern character and enhancing economic growth without sacrificing the vitality of the environment were key goals. They encouraged us to guide by providing incentives for long-term stewardship of the North's resources.

Some issues died early, others are still emerging

Mining issues were the first to play out. The Flambeau Mine at Ladysmith closed and reclamation was accomplished without a significant environmental issue. Plans to open a zinc and copper mine at Crandon have been shelved. While environmental monitoring is ongoing at Ladysmith, metallic mining is not an active concern for Wisconsin.

The concept of a northern trails network continues to grow and diversify. Many communities are expanding bicycle trails, and links are being developed between communities. Mountain biking trail networks are growing as well. Cycling and kayaking enthusiasts flock to the North in increasing numbers, and progressive tourism businesses provide more of the services these paddling and pedaling customers seek.

We're seeing tremendous change in motorized recreation. Wisconsin now registers more ATVs than snowmobiles. The proposed master plan for the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest includes an experimental ATV demonstration site and a statewide ATV policy on state lands was drafted last January.

Growing interest in ATV riding brings many issues. Outdoor enthusiasts who cherish quiet surroundings are concerned these conditions may soon be a memory. How can we provide places for ATV enthusiasts while sustaining the traditional peace and quiet of the North? No block of land can be all things to all people.

The issue of one-stop regulatory shopping is regularly hammered out and reshaped at the State Capitol. Recent legislation and many projects underway test how to streamline regulatory processes while maintaining the quality of Wisconsin's environment. Northern industry leaders and regulatory staff are fully engaged in this important effort.

People involved with Northern Wisconsin's leading industries – tourism and forest products – have a deep stake in sustaining these enterprises. Tourists delight in the beauty of our shorelines, brilliant night sky and remarkable quiet. Forest products industries require a dependable flow of materials from large, productive forests. But land ownership patterns are rapidly changing. Some companies owning large blocks of forestland are divesting these assets, providing wonderful opportunities to acquire very special lands for public use and preservation. Yet many large blocks of forest are being broken up and developed for homes and subdivisions. These parcels take on a more suburban character than the traditional northern forest.

Can the northern character survive our enthusiasm for it? Can we strike a balance between economic development and preservation that will support those who live and work in the North while maintaining the quality resources that attract visitors?

Jodi McMahon, director of the Manitowish Waters Chamber of Commerce, suggests we first need to understand what we want our community to be, then encourage development of businesses and recreational activities to fit the character of our area. "We need to be strategic in every land management and land use decision," she said.

Manitowish Waters faced just such a decision in 1995 when the Statehouse Lake Youth Conservation Camp closed. The site could have been sold and developed, but local leaders banded together, kept the property intact and formed the Northern Lakeland Discovery Center. This beautiful traditional Northwoods site, now a valued community asset, provides recreation and educational programs. It's a great fit for the Town of Manitowish Waters.

Tim and Kim Bowler at the Alpine Resort on the Presque Isle chain of lakes have stepped up to the challenges of sustaining a traditional Northwoods resort business. They have made substantial investments to assure their resort has the least possible environmental impact. They educate their guests, as Kim says, "to be polite visitors to the North." Many of their guests are more accustomed to high-intensity entertainment and need to learn how to vacation in simpler, relaxed, quiet Northwoods settings. "The demographics are changing," Kim says. "We need to look at what people want, to tap the markets."

Sustaining big blocks of forest

The Northern Initiatives recognized that vast, contiguous forests are a major draw and asset to the northern experience. The 18 counties in Wisconsin's northern tier hold three-fourths of all state- and county-owned forestlands, nearly all of the Chequamegon and Nicolet National Forests, and about 40 percent of the private forestlands. The region accounts for more than half of the 16 million acres of commercial woodlands in the state.

Northern forests provide recreation for residents and tourists as well as timber for 1,850 companies in Wisconsin. Many assumed these lands would remain commercial forests for decades, but economics at home and abroad are altering that assumption. Land prices are rising and woodlands are sought for retirement homes and weekend retreats. Overseas firms purchased many Wisconsin paper and timber businesses, and have sold large parcels of land. The land sales quickly can convert big blocks of timber into cabin woodlots. Two hundred-acre parcels divided into five 40-acre parcels and further subdivided provide profit on each sale. As development chips deeper into the forest, the demand to extend roads and utilities to new homes puts pressure on communities to raise taxes. And as taxes increase, those landowners trying to maintain forest are strapped to pay the yearly tax bill, creating yet more pressure to sell.

With each sale, the wild flavor of the North changes and forest management becomes more fragmented. Between 1984 and 1997, private ownership of wooded parcels increased by 20 percent and continues to rise. Adjoining landowners often have different ideas of how to manage their small woodlots. Providing professional services for greater numbers of woodland owners is a challenge for foresters and timber mills alike, who were accustomed to dealing with fewer owners who managed much larger tracts of land.

The public also has a stake in sustaining larger forest parcels. Lands once accessible for recreation are being closed off. When a forest products company sold its holdings a few years ago near the Willow Flowage in Oneida County, a popular ATV trail closed and the new private landowner discontinued public access for hunting.

Through direct purchases, easements and timber certification, the public still has a few tools available to supply fiber to the mills and maintain space for public recreation.

Direct purchases are made from willing sellers, such as the "Great Addition" back in 1999 when Packaging Corporation of America sold the state 33,000 acres of forest from a total sale of 161,000 acres of timberland. Land trusts and organizations like The Nature Conservancy also buy land outright or offer landowners options to protect, manage and maintain their forestlands.

Conservation easements purchase future development rights instead of buying the land itself. More than 100,000 acres of land are currently protected in the state through conservation easements.

Certification takes a different strategy to protect forests and increase the value of forest products. Certified forests are evaluated using internationally recognized standards to ensure the land will be maintained as healthy, productive timberlands, provide wildlife habitat, and protect water quality. Wood and other products sold from certified forests earn a premium price. All of Wisconsin's state and county forests have been certified and two million acres of private woodlands enrolled in the Managed Forest Law program also meet certification requirements.

Mike Luedeke, a forester in DNR's Northern Region, says certified forest lands make Wisconsin's wood products more valuable in the global marketplace where consumers worldwide demand wood fiber that has been grown using practices sensitive to environmental, ecological, and social issues.

At water's edge

When 90 percent of those surveyed for the first Northern Initiatives study said they were "somewhat" or "very" concerned about shoreline development, the department and partners responded with approaches to cover the waterfront.

"The Northern Initiatives process increased awareness of the importance of the shoreland area tremendously," says Myron Schuster, former administrator of Burnett County and now executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. "Now it's starting to bear fruit."

Counties, already frustrated in carrying out shoreland rules people found confusing and rigid, started revising local standards. Many drew on DNR staff expertise and grants to fund studies to sort out which lakes, rivers and streams would be most vulnerable if developed.

Planting natives at the shoreline protects the shore and shallow waters that provide aquatic habitat. © Vilas County
Planting natives at the shoreline protects the shore and shallow waters that provide aquatic habitat.

© Vilas County

By 2000, all 72 counties had beefed up the standards in some way. Many counties increased minimum lake lot sizes and increased the distance new buildings needed to be set back from the water's edge. Nearly all counties tightened limits on removing native plants next to the water or started requiring property owners who wanted to expand their homes to restore a 35-foot wide natural buffer between the shoreline and their construction project.

Such efforts to strengthen and clarify shoreland standards are just a starting point. Other voluntary and educational approaches are bringing even more encouraging results, Schuster says.

"We decided if we kept doing the same thing, we'd end up with the same results," Schuster says. As the development steamroller from the nearby Twin Cities area headed its way, Burnett County shifted course.

Rather than hire more staff to enforce ordinances, Burnett County focused on getting a tax incentive program going. Property owners who voluntarily signed restrictive covenants to keep a 35- foot-wide natural buffer next to the water in perpetuity received a one-time stipend and a $50 annual tax credit thereafter. They also received a T-shirt and signs to advertise the incentive program.

County employees work with property owners to develop landscaping plans, pick out plants for their restoration projects, and make return visits to assure the property owners are meeting their obligations, according to Dave Ferris, Burnett County's conservationist and head of the Land and Water Conservation Department. Funds from state agriculture and natural resource departments share the county's cost of providing tax credits to property owners who buy and start native plants.

Both men regard the program as a huge success. Since its start in 1999, some 519 parcels have either been restored or left as natural shorelines.

To further jumpstart the program, Burnett and Polk counties teamed up for workshops to show landscaping firms how to get certified to carry out shoreland restorations. Information packets are still sent to all new waterfront landowners to help them understand the critical importance of shorelands for clean water, good fishing and natural scenic beauty. Demonstration sites on public lands helped demystify shoreland restoration and ease people's concerns. "Changing attitudes is a big part of the program," Ferris says. "Most of the people with lakeshore homes come from big cities. Their concept of a lakeshore lot is a manicured bluegrass lawn down to the water's edge, and a tree with no branches near the ground."

Vilas County Conservationist Patrick Goggin faces the same educational challenge in a county with more than 1,000 lakes. The land and water conservation department he directs has received $30,000 to $50,000 in agriculture department funding for about five years to share property owners' costs of restoring natural buffers.

There are always more applications than funding, Goggin says, but the county offers resources to property owners and lake associations willing to go it alone. Handouts offering suggestions are distributed at the county zoning office, realty offices and to lake groups.

Some developers voluntarily adopt setbacks, lot sizes and other practices to protect shorelands. "Development is going to happen," says Buzz Sorge, DNR lake planning specialist. "There are different ways to get the same objectives accomplished that you do through ordinances."

When DNR studies showed that Loon Lake, a small shallow water in Chippewa County was home to several rare species and would be very sensitive to increased runoff, Sorge worked with developer Naterra Land to alter its lakeshore project.

"We'd been looking for a way to develop that's more environmentally friendly, showed common sense, and used low-tech approaches that we can understand and that our customers can understand," says Steve Roman, Naterra's executive vice president.

The result was protective covenants binding the purchaser and successive owners to protect the shoreland. No buildings or structures can be closer than 100 feet to the water, there's a no-mow zone next to the water, septic systems can't be located closer to the water than 75 feet, and rain gardens are mandatory.

"It hasn't slowed our sales down and it should make it easier for us to get approvals for our plats," Roman said. As of the end of May, nearly two-thirds of the lakefront lots had been sold at prices ranging from $49,950 to $106,950.

Wild Lakes

Northerners especially want to save and savor some of those truly wild places in the region. Since the 1960s about two-thirds of the remaining undeveloped lakes larger than 10 acres have been developed. The average number of dwellings on privately-owned shorelands has doubled in the last 40 years, and trends indicate all the undeveloped northern lakes not currently developed could be developed by 2015. Some of these rare gems are being preserved and permanently set aside.

Through 2003, the Wild Lakes program has protected 38 named lakes, 10 unnamed lakes and parts of eight other lakes.

Recently the West Wisconsin Land Trust negotiated with Brunkow Hardwoods Corp. to purchase 2,780 acres of undeveloped land in Polk County. The company was willing to drop the asking price on the land by $2 million – enough so combined funds from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund with money from the national Ice Age Trail Foundation could support the purchase.

"We always wanted the property to be conserved as a park and as a segment of the Ice Age Trail, but it took the West Wisconsin Land Trust to bring this deal together," said company president Bob Brunkow.

The property may become a wilderness park/wildlife area and has the largest contiguous segment of the Ice Age Trail. It contains over 800 acres of old-growth hardwoods, a 107-acre wild lake, vast undisturbed wetlands, rolling prairies, and the largest population of cerulean warblers in the state.

Other partners in Wild Lakes purchases include the Trust for Public Lands, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bayfield Regional Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, the Last Wilderness Conservation Association, and Gathering Waters Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy joined with the department in the purchase of the Catherine Wolter Wilderness Area in Vilas County. These 2,189 acres contained 15 wild lakes and ponds. The Conservancy also helped purchase the 1,043-acre Caroline Lake Preserve in Ashland County, the Holmboe Conifer Forest in Oneida County, and 26,000 acres in the Chequamegon Bay watershed. The latter includes parts of the Apostle Islands, Chequamegon Point, and the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs.

Other lands are set aside using conservation easements. The landowners keep the rights to sell the property, farm, hunt, restrict hunting, transfer land to their heirs, and limit access to the land; only development rights are restricted. Conservation easements appeal to landowners because they are voluntary, flexible, and efficient. If the easement meets certain Internal Revenue Service requirements, it may offer substantial income, property, and estate tax savings to the landowner.

Wild rivers

A spin-off of the Northern Initiatives is the identification of stream and river corridors that especially deserve protection. Nearly 1,500 rivers and streams in northern Wisconsin have been assessed and people's attitudes surveyed. Citizens tell us their top concerns for these riverbanks and streambanks are housing construction, water pollution and declining fish populations, followed by crowding, farm runoff, erosion, access to the water, user conflicts and artificial changes in the water flow.

Dave Ferris thinks it will take a greater commitment from all levels of government to stop the incredible pounding all of the Northern Initiatives issues are receiving from more intense development.

"State government as a whole needs to take the long-term view that we have to protect this for generations down the road instead of providing for the immediate gratification of individuals who want this today," Ferris says. "I like what Gaylord Nelson said: The ultimate test of man's conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard."

That's the spirit the Northern Initiatives brought to the decade past and will carry forward.

David J. Daniels is a planning analyst for the Northern Region's facilities and lands program based in Rhinelander. Mark Stokstad recently retired as the Air & Waste Team Leader for DNR's Northern Region based in Rhinelander. James C. Bishop, Jr. is the public affairs manager for the Northern Region in Spooner. Larry G. Nelson supervises field operations for the Northern Region fisheries and habitat team based in Spooner. Lisa Gaumnitz is DNR's public affairs manager for water programs based in Madison.