Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Car with fallen tree across roof © DNR File Photo

No one was injured when a tree landed on a car at Potawatomi State Park.
DNR File Photo

October 2012

After nature's fury

State parks crews roll up their sleeves.

Kathleen Harris

On Sept. 29, 2011, a major wind storm roared through Door County forcing emergency closure of its five state parks for six days. A year later, storm evidence remains despite hours of cleanup, which is quite normal after a weather event of such magnitude. For the observant visitor, it also offers the opportunity to see the paradox of nature – fiercely tempestuous and serenely restorative.

What storm evidence will visitors see today? Jeff Lange, a facilities repair worker at Peninsula State Park, says there are many downed cedar trees along Shore and Skyline roads including a few barber poles. (High winds that twist tree crowns and create downward pressure, splitting trees vertically, are called barber poles.)

The Department of Natural Resources contracted locally to cut and remove 87.25 cords of wood and 66,640 board feet of logs, including several magnificent red oaks lost to the winds. Lange and other employees helped cut hundreds of trees during and after the storm.

Ranger Alyssa Gove helped with cleanup, including the night of the storm. Stationed at Peninsula, she remembers standing outside at 8 p.m., noting complete calm. By 8:30, sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph were pummeling the park while four-foot and higher waves rolled against piers across the county. Within minutes trees blocked roads and had snapped a utility pole; power was out later requiring WPS repairs at nine separate sites and campers were stranded.

But not for long.

An emergency response plan was quickly implemented. Kelli Bruns, who arrived as Peninsula's superintendent just four weeks earlier, successfully led the response. Campground and nature center hosts pitched in first, helping evacuate campers.

By noon the next day, DNR staff from fisheries, forestry, trails and other state parks were on site, working in crews of three to four, to safely and efficiently reopen roadways. Skilled tree-cutters worked together, using guide ropes and wedges so snags could be safely dropped with the least amount of damage to other trees.

"Taking part in such a historic event will stay with me the rest of my life," said Gove. "The way people came together for Peninsula's common good shows what kind of people work for the Department of Natural Resources."

Storm damage wasn't isolated to Peninsula. At Potawatomi State Park, 25 miles to the south, Superintendent Don McKinnon was coordinating cleanup including serious damage to a shower building and the park's fishing pier.

"We had many state workers and volunteers come to our aid," he said. "Disasters like this truly bring out the American caring spirit."

In the course of cleanup, DNR staff cleared and conducted safety inspections for nearly 100 miles of hiking trails, about 40 miles of roads and 748 campsites.

Luckily, there were no injuries during the storm at any state park, though an unoccupied car was crushed by a mighty oak.

As for storm "benefits" the notion of "team" is one. There are others.

Whitefish Dunes naturalist Carolyn Rock described the value of forest nutrient cycling and improved woodpecker habitat.

"Following the storm, visitors commonly ask why the Department of Natural Resources doesn't clean up the woods, especially along the Red and Black trails at Whitefish Dunes. Intense winds raged across these paths, pulling up dozens of trees from the shallow, sandy soil," Rock said. "We removed trees from the trails, but left downed cedars where they fell."

Over time, the logs will decompose, enriching the soil with nutrients.

Woodpeckers, which feast on carpenter ants and other insects in the decaying timber, have also become more watchable.

"Visitors report seeing more pileated woodpeckers," said Rock. "This past summer, staff also documented a nesting pair of red-headed woodpeckers, a Wisconsin species of special concern."

Wind-blow has opened the forest to regeneration. More sunlight means a better chance for oak and pine seedlings. In wide swaths, birch trees might take hold. In turn, woodland edge species like red fox and indigo buntings may become more abundant, just as the number of woodpeckers seems to have increased.

Nature is dynamic and unexpected change is always astonishing.

Kathleen Harris is a naturalist at Peninsula State Park.