Minocqua Brewing Company was the site of some lively discussion the evening of Feb. 6. A large crowd filled the barroom for “Science on Tap” – a new community outreach effort.
The UW-Madison Center for Limnology’s Trout Lake Station partnered with Kemp Natural Resources Station, the Minocqua Public Library and the Wisconsin Alumni Association Lakeland Badger Chapter to bring the first in a series of informal discussions.
It’s a chance for people to share comments with and ask questions of those working closely with the Northwoods’ natural world.
Tim Kratz, director of Trout Lake Station and Thomas Steele, director of Kemp Natural Resources Station, UW-Madison, presented “Wisconsin’s Northwoods: A Changing Landscape in Changing Times.”
Trout Lake Station research scientist and aquatic biologist Susan Knight served as discussion moderator.
Specifically, the presentation was a discussion on human impact on the Northwoods over time.
Steele started by bringing people back to the mid-19th century and our then-virgin forest.
“In the mid-1800s northern Wisconsin was a wild frontier of old-growth forest interspersed with lakes, bogs, wetlands and barrens,” Steele said.
Sugar maple, hemlock and yellow birch were predominant, he said, but he noted that Vilas and Oneida counties boasted white and red pine as the most dominant species.
As the Midwest grew, the demand for timber brought logging while the need for agriculture needed cleared land.
“For several years, Wisconsin led the nation in the harvest of lumber and the production of lumber,” Steele said.
After a few decades, the large forest was gone. With the land cleared, northern Wisconsin was touted as “the ideal place to do farming.”
The state’s very first agricultural agent worked out of Oneida County, Steele noted. But the Northwoods was never great farming country.
“[The farms] failed for a few reasons,” Steele said.
Northwoods farms were too far away from markets, the growing season was short and much of the soil was poor.
Farms were abandoned and much land became tax-delinquent. That’s why there is so much public land in the north, Steele explained. In the 1910s the Northwoods “began to emerge as a tourism destination,” Steele told the crowd.
“This was really welcome, with the decline of lumbering and with the decline or failure of agriculture,” he said.
With the large urban centers of Milwaukee and Chicago nearby and families having more disposable income and shorter work weeks, the north was drawing interest as a vacation land.
“The state had a very active program to promote tourism through the early 1920s – even through the Depression,” Steele said.
He said Oneida County was the first county in the country to develop land-use planning, the purpose of which was “to keep the county forested and try to disperse the population to try to make it more attractive to tourism.”
The first 30 years of the 20th century saw “three major shifts,” Steele said.
• The forest began to return after extensive logging. Sun-loving trees such as aspen and paper birch flourished.
• The forest industry transitioned from lumber to paper production.
• The Northwoods became a center for environmental research.
Tourism shifted away from camping and resort stays in the wake of World War II, Steele said. We had better highways and people again had more income. Many bought land of their own and constructed cottages. By the 1970s, it became especially prevalent. Another spike occurred in the 1990s.
“As this residential development continued, what we saw was the forest getting parcelized, getting cut up into smaller blocks, either by roads or by developments,” Steele said.
He showed maps of Wisconsin that illustrated housing density in 1940 and 2010 and a projection of what 2030 might look like. Still, we have our forest.
“The forests have recovered remarkably from that cut-over period,” Steele said.
He said the forest 100 years ago “was a broad expanse of charred stumps. Look at the forest we have today. It’s a healthy, thriving, maturing forest.”
Kratz discussed Northwoods water resources. There are many.
“One of the statistics that I find mind-boggling is that if you draw a line roughly around the high concentration of lakes in the Northwoods and count the number of water bodies there are, there are over 7,000 distinct water bodies in the Northwoods,” Kratz said.
A “hotbed of scientific activity” occurred here in the 1920s and 1930s, according to Kratz. Activity included the 1924 forming of the Trout Lake Station.
“The science of lakes – limnology – in North America was founded by people that did that early work up here,” he said.
The lakes that Trout Lake Station studies became known world-wide by the scientific community.
Kratz said the data collected years ago forms a baseline to assess how the lakes and environment are changing and how we’re doing at managing these resources.
“I’m pleased to say that ... largely, we’re not doing too bad,” he said.
There are challenges, though, he pointed out. Development of shorelines, for instance. Things such as clearing shores, including pulling fallen trees, affect fish habitat.
“In lakes that are developed, that have less of this woody habitat ... [fish growth rates are] three times slower than undeveloped lakes, primarily because of the habitat that wood provides,” Kratz said.
Sometimes it’s not what’s taken, but what’s introduced that affects the fishery.
People are “the primary vectors of invasive species,” Kratz said. He said some of the invasives don’t have a negative impact, but others do.
Kratz went on to discuss fishing pressure, something common to the Northwoods, which sees residents and visitors alike that enjoy angling.
“We respond to that by instituting rules and regulations, but those things together – increased residential development challenging our shorelines, introductions of invasive species and fishing pressure react in ways that are pretty complex,” Kratz said.
He described the study of the way these things interact as “fascinating,” and pointed out a positive of humans “colonizing” lakes.
“The environmental sensitivity of the area has been raised,” Kratz said. “People know that the quality of the environment is part and parcel to the livelihood and the economy of the area. We have self-organized in ways that are obvious and ways that are not so apparent.”
He noted the many lake associations and efforts by government entities and emphasized the importance of the human role in conjuction with nature.
“You can’t understand the dynamics just by understanding what’s going on in nature, nor can you do it just by understanding what’s going on in the socioeconomic study. What we really need to do is have a coupled understanding.”
Some of the topics
Mining, chemical treatment of Eurasian water milfoil (EWM) and forest growth were just a few of many topics that came up during the discussion.
Almost immediately, mining was brought up. Kratz said they had “debated how long it would take for this question to come up,” as the crowd laughed.
Kratz made general comments on mining, noting it’s not an area of expertise for him. He expressed concerns in the area of soil mineral composition and sensitivity of lakes, saying most area water bodies are “very sensitive” and indicating it would be important to guard lakes against acidification.
Steele pointed out that society has a large demand for resources such as minerals, but stressed the importance good stewardship and said he didn’t know if mining could be done safely from an environmental standpoint.
On the chemical 2, 4-D, which is used to aid eradication efforts of EWM, Kratz turned to moderator Susan Knight, who he described as an expert on EWM.
Knight said water is sampled periodically after application of the chemical on many lakes.
“The general case is, if it is a fairly rich lake with a lot of microbial activity, especially if it’s got a lot of muck in the lake, that chemical is gone almost immediately,” she said.
Knight cited studies that show 2, 4-D lasting a couple of months, but said it does not react the same in every lake. She noted an ongoing study on Little St. Germain Lake to see if the chemical is accumulating.
Steele discussed our forests, saying about 2 percent of pre-settlement old growth forest remains, but varies by species. He said Wisconsin is seeing a “natural succession of forest development.”
Species like birch and aspen were among the first succession after lands were cleared and as they matured and were harvested the most predominant trees are maples.
“Our forests are maturing,” Steele said. “We have more maple present on our sites now than we did a few decades ago and the tree size is also getting larger.”
On restoring the forest to an old growth state, he said, “I have to be frank. I’m not sure that it’s possible, and I’m not sure it’s desireable.”
Steele noted the present economy as one reason an old growth forest might not be desireable. He did say he would like to see more old growth forest, though, and a balance. He used a kaleidoscope metaphor to emphasize his personal view of what a forest should be.
“You have all these wonderful shapes and colors and patterns,” Steele said. “And think of those shapes and colors and patterns of different species of forest, different ages of forest, and as you turn that kaleidoscope, they change over time. And that’s a result of natural processes and human interaction.”
Steele’s thoughts drew applause from the crowd.
The “Science on Tap” series will continue at Minocqua Brewing Company on the first Wednesday of every month. No advance registration is required.
The next Science on Tap: Wednesday, March 6, 6:30 p.m. “Climate change and what it means for Northwoods lakes, forests and outdoor recreation.”
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com