Silence of the Loons

Paul Bunyan and his axmen merely ravaged the North Woods. Will recreational sprawl kill it?

by Erik Ness

(Milwaukee Magazine, March 1996)

Summer is here and the car is loaded: swimsuit, sunblock, junk fiction, fishing tackle. Forget the map—you already know where you’re going: All Points North.

To ask why seems needless. Tell a friend you’re headed North and they’ll understand. We all seek refuge, solace, recreation. To feel the sun after a refreshing dip in any one of 12,400 lakes. To wonder at flowers and eagle and not a few fish. Many of us are reenacting treasured recollections of youthful summers, pungent memories that linger like the sweet aroma of pine. We seek a primal tonic to offset our urbane existence, a calling loon at sunset to remind us what wild is and what wild does and why wild is good.

This is not merely a road trip; it is a pilgrimage.

Problem is, it’s also a mass migration. Some Fridays, it seems like every car in the Upper Midwest is bolting for some secret North Woods Shangrila. If you haven’t noticed the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the “FOR SALE” signs and the boomtown persona permeating the North, you really need a vacation. For the last three years, virtually every northern county has watched its tax base soar annually by double digits, a veritable pace car for statewide economic growth. A billion tourist dollars grease hands here every year.

Driving north on Highway 51, the first billboard comes 15 miles south of Stevens Point. Two-foot-high blue letters WATERFRONT PARCELS.

That’s all, plus a small logo and a toll-free number: 1-800-808-LOTS.

John Lawlis, a Mequon native, answers the phone. “Business is fantastic,” he confides. As well it should be: Four Seasons Realty specializes in buildable waterfront lots, a seller’s market. “It is unbelievable right now. Within the last five years, the price has just skyrocketed.” A tsunami of baby boomers is approaching retirement, with one hand in the till of a high-octane economy while their 401ks blush under the beneficence of an epic bull market. If that weren’t riches enough, they’re even coming into inheritances, and mortgage rates are bottom-feeding. Suddenly the dream of retiring to a cottage on a northern lake seems achievable, even modest.

Except for the law of supply and demand. “Everybody wants to have the best of both worlds,” says Lawlis. ‘’A half-acre or acre on water, then right across the street, 80 acres where they can hunt. It’s just not out there anymore. It is slim pickings altogether. Whatever you want, you’re going to have a tough time finding it.” By his own estimation, he’ll soon run out of work. “Within the next three or four years, there will be nothing left to develop.”

Sprawl is this year’s hot civics topic but in the North Woods, too? It’s unlikely that Blue Mound Road will ever make it all the way to Lincoln County. Yet if sprawl has a birthmark, it is its homogenizing effect on the landscape. Phoenix looks like Boston looks like… Minocqua? If you’ve witnessed the asphalt runway descending south from that resort haven, you know it’s coming.

In 1996, the Department of Natural Resources reported that in less than 30 years, some two-thirds of Wisconsin’s pristine lakes 10 acres and larger had been developed, while housing density on private shorelands doubled. Under such pressure, they predicted that all undeveloped lakes not owned by the public would be subdivided and conquered inside of 20 years. “It could be that our very passion for these natural lakes and wild places… will be the engine for their elimination,” noted the report. “Not because we want to harm them but because there are just too many of us longing to find that last special lake….”

Depending on your point of view, Highway 51 is either the lifeblood of the North or it’s a hemorrhagic wound from which it could never recover. For better or for worse, the blood is pumping ever faster. Where four lanes dwindle to two, timber is now being culled to make way for four lanes all the way to Minocqua.

Driving north on 51 on a late-spring morning, I don’t know whether to feel like oxygen or pathogen. The weather is cool and blue. It is in hopes of days like these that we come up here in the first place. Turning off of 51, I head east to Rhinelander, seat of Oneida County, home to one-tenth of the northern lakes and ground zero for development pressure.

Fiddling with the radio, I catch the tail end of a conversation with a local Realtor, which I add to the profusion of real estate billboards as further evidence of the North worn thin by a stampeding parade of homes.

In front of the Oneida County courthouse, I discover a faint historical echo, a marker commemorating the nation’s first rural zoning ordinance, adopted May 16, 1933. Strapped by depression and ecological duress, “the Oneida County board of supervisors resolved the costs of transporting school children and the construction and maintenance of new roads by adopting a zoning ordinance prohibiting settlement in remote areas.”

As one story goes, a farmer settled a few miles off the beaten track and began lobbying for a new road to his place. At first, the government said no, but the farmer tried again after the next election and the road got built. The farmer used the road exactly once: to move away.

Times change. I was here to visit with Steve Osterman, the county zoning administrator, but I made the mistake of dropping by at the start of the building season. Just a few days earlier, the county had approved a new set of zoning ordinances restricting lakefront development. “You don’t have an appointment?” the receptionist asked, twice, incredulous.

“I’ve never been busier than I am now,” says Osterman a few weeks later. Oneida County has 54,000 parcels of land, he explains, about half of them on water. Between 1994 and 1996, 10 percent—more than 5,000 parcels each year—changed hands. “Thirty percent in just the three years alone!” marvels Osterman. “And when you turn over property, generally it’s to improve it or develop it.” His dilemma is replicated across the North for government employees: too much work, too little staff, increasing pressure to protect the resource while not holding back progress.

As we talk, Osterman opens a local text for some historical feedback. “Your zoning program is okay except for one thing,” scolded a town chairman back in the 1930s. “It is 25 years too late!”

“I could say that today,” says Osterman. “The growth we’ve seen is phenomenal—so much so quick. We’ve had whole lakes developed all at once—30-acre lakes with two dozen homes. A year later and it’s a whole different environment. The change is so dramatic to me, it’s scary.”

What’s more, as the market has heated up, the houses have gotten bigger—some are monstrous trophy houses—as lot quality has declined. All of that takes a toll on the environment. Then there are the human impacts. “We could talk about the actual water-use conflicts—the battles between the jet-skiers and sailboaters and fishermen and water-skiers. Those aren’t getting any easier.”

Ultimately, it translates into a local crisis of character, says the Rhinelander native. “We don’t want to be compared to other areas or other regions. We kind of like the North Woods ethic, our way of doing things. We want to be different. We like the natural beauty, the trees and the animals and the lake critters. That’s what keeps our place special. We would prefer to keep the North the North. If you lose the character of the North Woods….” His voice trails off at the thought of it.

Curious to know where a man born and bred in vacationer’s paradise goes to recreate himself, I ask where he’ll spend his Memorial Day. Little surprise that he’s leaving for Minnesota, the Boundary Waters.

Lost Lake and Shannen Lake are only a few miles apart in southernmost Vilas County, in the town of St. Germaine. Though engulfed by the American Legion State Forest, both lakes are minutes from a bubble of development along State Highway 70 featuring Wisconsin Dells-style go-kart racing and miniature golf. Lost Lake is developed 360 degrees. Shannen Lake is in conservancy, surrounded only by trails and accessible via a single dirt road.

They are worlds apart, and the best place to see this is where water meets land and nature transacts some of her messiest and most important business. Biologists define the shoreland zone as running from about 500 feet inland out to a depth of about seven feet. Here, trees topple into the water while aquatic plants colonize the shallows. The prevailing winds often drive debris against the shore, where it decays into a spongy mat. All in all, it’s a delightful place to be a critter, and this shoreland zone is a critical incubator for all manner of aquatic insects, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles.

Not so on Lost Lake. Perhaps a third of the shoreline is traditional lawn, prime habitat for tacky lawn ornaments and not much else. My faux wildlife sightings for the morning: one duck on a stick, with legs that spin when the wind blows; a 10-point buck posing as a weather vane; garish pinwheel flowers; a wolf flag; another bird on a stick that looks like a roadrunner; and other plaster and plastic creatures like sea gulls, a bear, deer and a family of loons. All of this (and more) inhabited only three lots.

This is the North Woods as caricature, but there is much more at stake than aesthetics because the changes don’t stop at the lawn. Applications of fertilizer and pesticides can run into the lakes, contaminating the water. A single pound of phosphorous fertilizer can spawn 500 pounds of plant growth in the lake. Construction site erosion can cause the same problem, especially when a good thunderstorm washes out a steep site. And once construction is completed, water can run off of roofs and driveways with enough force that it goes straight to the lake without being filtered through the shoreland buffer. Let’s not even think about the havoc wrought by septic failure. The DNR is currently beginning a two-year research project to assess the extent of lake quality problems posed by development.

When lakes change, wildlife can also be hit hard. According to a DNR study, one in 10 of the undeveloped or sparsely developed lakes in Wisconsin harbor threatened or endangered species. Eighty percent of these species spend all or part of their life cycle in the shoreland zone.

Even commonplace species are being crowded out. Mike Meyer is a DNR researcher and North Woods native who studies the effects of toxic metals and chemicals on wildlife populations, using the relatively pollution-free northern animals for a frame of reference. “I couldn’t help but notice that habitat loss was potentially a much more dire threat than chemical pollution. I worked on about 150 lakes in four counties and I have the perspective of having grown up here,” says Meyer. “I’ve seen dramatic changes. It wasn’t really a discovery; it’s very obvious.”

Working with a biologist from Ashland College, Meyer set out to put some science behind his casual observation. They focused on the green frog, which is found in nearly all of the aquatic systems in the North Woods and prefers lake shores as breeding territories. It’s a large frog, and you might know it as the loose banjo string in the summer’s chorus.

The relationship was simple and dramatic: As shoreline dwelling density increased, green frogs disappeared. “They like a lot of fallen debris and stuff to hide in. Not surprisingly, as shoreline is developed and put into lawn, the amount of available habitat declines,” says Meyer. “Without the habitat, there are fewer breeding sites and I’m sure their predation rates are higher.” Matching the state’s minimal shoreland zoning requirements to his discovery produced a disturbing coda: If every lake were developed to its legal limit, the green frog would effectively be eliminated from Wisconsin lakes.

The story was a little more complex for songbirds. Developed lakes tend to have as many birds as undeveloped lakes, but the cast is different. Where human density is higher, common suburban birds such as blue jays, crows, goldfinch and grackles crowd out the less populous migratory songbirds such as the warbler, thrush, vireo and ovenbird.

Evidence that development affects eagles and loons, two signature species of the North, is harder to come by. Eagles are rebounding from historic lows, so while they don’t seek out crowds, it’s difficult to guess how they’ll adapt to more development in the long run.

Loons are even trickier. Mercury exposure in loons in northern Wisconsin is quite high, especially on lakes where acidic water chemistry releases the mercury into the food chain. Parsing this toxic impact and that from shoreline development isn’t easy. (There is also ongoing debate about how much of this mercury is naturally occurring and how much comes from human sources such as incinerators and coal-fired generators.) Preliminary data suggest that loons can accommodate shoreline development. On some lakes where the public is very conscientious, loons nest and raise young and can also grow accustomed to boating activity and other human disturbance—up to a point. Still, they steer clear of populous lakes around Minocqua, St. Germaine and Eagle River despite an abundance of food. Meyer doesn’t get it, so his research continues. “Before I give it an all clear, I want to make sure that we’ve evaluated their success very closely.”

Data may be what science requires, but science seems somehow inadequate to fully explain the lusty, loopy ululating loon. So uncanny is their call that it’s not uncommon to ascribe a keen intelligence to these birds. Nor is it difficult to believe that they may vote with their wings. After an hour of comparative desolation of wildlife on Lost Lake, I move over to Shannen Lake and am immediately greeted by two young loons.

As I troll the shoreline, the difference is remarkable. The only sign of development here is my parked truck, and it seems sorely out of place. Here the seam between land and water is more diffuse, cluttered with the scaffolding of life. As a bumblebee patrols the creeping juniper, I hear chickadees as more birds dart through the underbrush. The loons are following me, perhaps obliging my desire to visit but more likely keeping an eye on me. Hundreds of small fish flash along the sandy bottom.

An eagle pirouettes into a large pine. Moving quietly toward it, I surprise a few turtles sunning themselves on a nesting platform installed for the loons. Suddenly, a mountain biker flushes the eagle before my eyes, no more than 50 feet away. As it climbs away, it is joined by another, then two more appear flying in tight formation, a breathless, swooning synergy.

In this moment, I hear the singing wilderness of North Woods evocateur and Wisconsin native Sigurd Olson: “Should we actually glimpse the ancient glory or hear the singing wilderness, cities and their confusion become places of quiet, speed and turmoil are slowed to the pace of the seasons and tensions are replaced with calm.”

The DNR is certainly the most prominent state agency in the North, a player as caretaker, regulator and facilitator. Perhaps most important was its Northern Initiative, an effort begun in the early 1990s to stimulate dialogue about development with the intellectually fuzzy slogan of “keeping the North the North.”

Some would argue that the state has been AWOL and ineffective. The ongoing land rush coincides with an institutional sea change within the DNR. It lost its political independence in 1995 when it became a cabinet-level agency. Subsequent reorganization led to an exodus of experienced staff, morale problems and the challenge of understanding a redefined mission.

“Three years ago, we were struggling,” says Becky Frisch, zoning administrator in Langlade County. “The DNR was not providing any leadership about how to deal with some of these problems. We could not wait around for the DNR to get its ducks in order to help us.”

Indeed, virtually every northern county has proceeded to review its shoreland zoning; nine have already passed more severe restrictions, limiting shoreland cutting, increasing setbacks and decreasing density. While local initiative is good, Frisch argues that the lack of uniformity could eventually backfire and too many counties have been reinventing the wheel. “Some of this stuff could have been simply done at a state level, and they failed to be there,” she says.

“There are very few places where you can look and not feel like you’re in some suburban setting of southern Wisconsin,” says Frisch. “Sprawl in the North Woods is somewhat disheartening in terms of what we may look like in the future. It’s more than just the lake development issue. It’s the whole general landscape. Most northern counties don’t have comprehensive plans or any kind of land-use plan. We don’t have one.”

Clearly, there is plenty more opportunity for leadership. Road improvements continue throughout the North, bringing still more people. And as prime lakefront property evaporates, development pressure is beginning to move onto rivers. With more than 20,000 miles of rivers and streams, there is still a lot more work to do.

While Frisch may have preferred a more proactive DNR, she commends its support for local initiatives. “Here in Langlade County, we can now guarantee you, from now until forever, that there is going to be a diversity of lakes available,” she says. “It’s not all going to become fully developed.”

More exciting than zoning ordinances is the shoreland restoration movement. Just as many landlubbers are planting prairies, lakefront property owners are trying to turn their lawns back into legitimate wild habitat. Restoration is not an exact science and definitely not a weekend landscaping project. But sometimes it’s as simple as not cutting your grass.

“Shoreland restoration is a growth industry right now,” says DNR shoreland planner John Hagengruber. “Landscapers are getting involved and leading the trend. They don’t have enough hours in the day. Once restoration gets a toehold on the lake, people realize that John Smith isn’t mowing as much and he’s spending more time in the boat,” says Hagengruber. “Maybe he’s doing something right.”

But while some people seek to restore the North 100 front feet at a time, others argue that a bolder approach is needed, an effort to restore the Great North Woods that once towered unbroken from the Minnesota prairies to the tip of the Upper Peninsula. “When you compare Wisconsin with northern Minnesota and the UP., we ain’t got much left. It’s a big aspen forest and vacation land and road network,” says Bill Willers of Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN).

What remains of the great woods is essentially a series of land islands, says Willers, emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Scientists are just beginning to understand that the smaller the island, the smaller the number of species it can support. Diversity also decreases with isolation. One study of national parks in North America showed that only one park complex—the massive Jasper and Banff in Alberta—has not lost mammals.

Restoring the North Woods in their entirety is a Herculean task; Willers suggests that by making the land islands bigger and connecting them, you can accomplish much the same thing. SWAN wants to see federal, state and county lands knit together into a network of wild cores, buffers and corridors. In this scheme, the cores are inviolate—no development, logging, mining or roads are tolerated. The core is surrounded by buffer zones with increasing levels of activity, and connective corridors between adjacent core areas would allow creatures to migrate back and forth. Significant recent state purchases such as the Willow Flowage and the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage could make excellent cores, he argues, but the challenge is in building the entire system. “It is important that the internal mechanism of natural process not be isolated.”

It’s a proposal that scares some business interests. Last winter, when SWAN released a detailed map of the North showing what areas might be suitable for such ambitious restoration, state Rep. Lorraine M. Seratti (R-Spread Eagle) rose indignantly. “If SWAN moves forward by inhibiting development on any northern Wisconsin forest, it would have a disastrous effect on local economies,” a press release from her office claimed. “It crossed the line of reason when the proponents of such initiatives propose to put human wants, desires and needs behind so-called ‘ecological integrity.’”

Yet somehow SWAN’s grand ambition rings true. The North Woods maybe a ghost of its former self, but there can be little doubt it is that ghost people seem to be seeking in their journeys north.

To whom does the North belong? In a state where the North embodies a rich heritage, culture, biology and economy, that is no easy question.

In Sigurd Olson’s classic The Singing Wilderness, the author relates a number of stories that resonate with the current northern dilemma. He talks about his sadness and sense of loss at the coming of a road to his favorite wilderness lake. He remembers his futile efforts to own nature through trapping a squirrel. He meditates on silence and how the one time he flew into the wilderness, “it seemed that I had not earned the right to enjoy it.”

I like the story entitled “Birthday on the Manitou.” Olson was fly-fishing in the remote reaches of the Boundary Waters when he realized he was not alone, and “suddenly the joy of the morning was gone.” He climbed out of the river to find the other man. It turned out the fellow traveler was 80 years old and had endured the same hard road to get there. Olson’s resentment faded. “Far better to share the river with someone who felt as I did, and I began to look with a certain approval at the way he blended into his background.”

It’s the blending that’s the trick.

“I don’t like to see the amount of development that we’re seeing on the lakes,” admits Mike Meyer. “If I had drawn up my own version of how this area would have been settled, it certainly wouldn’t have been this, but what are we going to do, hey? Put up a toll bridge?”

Public vs. private. Regulation vs. market. Conservation vs. development. Meyer embodies the conflicts inherent in balancing human and natural resources in the North. “My family was in the resort business, then in the shoreline development and real estate business, so I’ve been the beneficiary as a kid of some of the profits. It has improved the economy up here considerably.” On the other hand, as a DNR scientist, Meyer knows that his research has produced quantitative support for people worried by development.

“All you can do is try to minimize the impact, try to educate the public,” he believes. “We’re not going to keep them away. My only solace is that we have so much public land up in this area that it’s buffering the impact. That’s going to be our salvation.”

But Meyer also knows that no government agency can save the North. “I’m more and more convinced that it’s up to the public to educate themselves and to adopt a better ethic about land stewardship,” he says. “It’s not going to be the forest primeval, but it will be an ecologically correct subdivision.”

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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