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Home to five national parks, lakeshores and marine conservation areas, as well as several state and provincial parks, Lake Superior is renowned for its beauty. A significant portion of the basin is publicly owned. On private land, however, big changes are taking place. Previously undeveloped shoreland is being divided and sold for homes. Forests are being fragmented by rural sprawl. Since land use planning and decisions are made locally, ecosystem protection rests largely with local citizens and governments.
Just as on inland lakeshores, development pressure is growing along the basin's rivers and Lake Superior shore. Large tracts are being carved up, causing habitat fragmentation, said DNR Lake Superior Water Supervisor Duane Lahti.
"The old lake cabin had minimal cut vegetation. You hardly knew it was there. Those cabins have given way to $250,000 to $500,000 homes with big garages and large, cleared areas. The lake cabin is no longer a cabin," he said.
The problem with such development is the cumulative effects of clearing shoreland, losing shoreland habitat and increasing runoff rates.
Protecting and restoring quality habitats in the basin is an important Binational Program goal. The first step has been to identify important habitat sites. Lake Superior resource agencies are using computers to map habitat areas and evaluate ecosystems basin wide. Wisconsin's intensive surveys in the mid-1990s documented the biological richness and functions of our coastal wetlands and other important wetlands in the basin, and the state places a high priority on protecting them.
Eric Epstein, an ecologist with the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources, describes the estuaries, sandscapes, and wave-carved sandstone cliffs of the southwestern Lake Superior shore as among the rarest and biologically richest environments in Wisconsin. Many highly specialized plants and animals. The extensive wetlands provide critical stopovers for migratory birds, safe havens for fish and other aquatic organisms, and matchless opportunities for biological study.
"Our surveys in the 1990s found marsh, meadow, and fen, each with interesting and sometimes dazzling plant and animal communities," Epstein said. "Even the coastal features in and around the City of Superior that are often overlooked. These perched wet meadows and shrub swamps so common on the red clay soils can harbor a wealth of biological diversity found at few other locations."
The lowland forests of the lower Bad, Brule, and Nemadji river corridors also contain unique plant communities. The spring-laced cedar swamps of the Brule support one of the region's most notable concentrations of rare plants and animals.
Valuable habitat: opportunities
"There is an amazing amount of relatively undisturbed native ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic," said Tom Duffus, Northeast Minnesota Program Director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
On the U.S. side of the basin, TNC has identified 11 priority conservation areas for biological diversity. These include the St. Louis River estuary, the Brule River State Forest, and a conservation area encompassing the Kakagon/Bad River sloughs, Fish Creek sloughs, the Bibon Swamp, the Apostle Islands and key areas of the Bayfield Peninsula.
"The Lake Superior basin has opportunities for managing large tracts of forest that haven't been irreversibly damaged," said Pat Collins, Lake Superior habitat coordinator with the Minnesota DNR and former co-chair of the Binational Program's Habitat Committee. "A lot of the land in the basin is forested. It's altered, converted from mostly conifers to hardwood and aspen-dominated forests, but it's not all farmland; it's not urban. This gives us a chance to manage resources at a scale that a lot of places don't have. What it requires is a level of cooperation across ownerships and among governments that's difficult to achieve.
Nancy Larson is Wisconsin DNR's Lake Superior program coordinator. Karen Plass is a former Lake Superior specialist with the Wisconsin DNR and former executive director of the St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee; she currently works for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.