/ Opinions / The cruelest cut

The cruelest cut

July 24, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

Five years ago the state legislature passed a measure that said county and local governments could not enact zoning provisions along lake shorelines that are more protective than a set of statewide minimum standards.

The action has had various consequences for our lakes and for the future of water quality and scenic values, notably in the lake-rich northern counties. Among its effects is to enable the clear-cutting of swaths of wooded land on lakeshore lots — a cause of consternation for many lake associations and lake residents and who want to preserve the Northwoods ambience.

Traditionally, shoreland zoning laws have designated the first 35 feet up from a lake’s high-water mark as a vegetative buffer zone, where the cutting of trees and shrubs was to be limited so as to protect lakeshore scenery. That protection has now been eroded.

For example, a part of the Oneida County Shoreland Protection Ordinance reads, “The county may allow removal of trees and shrubs in the vegetative buffer zone to create access and viewing corridors …The viewing corridor may be at least 35 feet wide for every 100 feet of shoreline frontage.”

In practice, this has come to mean that the owner of a lot with 100 feet of lake frontage may legally clear-cut a strip of land 35 feet wide to create a view of the water from a home or cabin. It also means the owner of a lot with 200 feet of frontage may clear-cut a strip 70 feet wide. These things have actually happened on some lakes in the region; many people believe this practice is destructive and should be stopped.

It’s understandable that people who buy lake property want to look at the water from their house or cottage windows. The question is how much cutting should be allowed to make this possible. There are ways to create a picturesque scene without clear-cutting — the judicious removal of a tree here, a limb there, can afford a water view while preserving the scenery as viewed from out on the lake, and in the bargain giving the property owner a measure of privacy.

Unfortunately, as I like to say (admittedly with some exaggeration), some people are inclined to fire up the chain saw before they move in the furniture. Some arrivals from the cities who buy lake lots bring with them a suburban mindset that includes the cultivation of a manicured lawn. Again, it’s possible to have a lawn (though many prefer not to have one) while still leaving a healthy stand of trees intact.

In other words, it’s feasible to have appealing water views while retaining the scenery that gives the Northwoods lakes their appeal, while preserving wildlife habitat in the rich and diverse shoreland zone, and while protecting lakes from pollution carried by runoff from the land. It strikes me that in such a scenario, everybody wins.

What is your lake’s experience with clear-cutting of shorelines? Do you have issues with that practice? Do you think zoning laws should restrict or prevent it? I would be most interested in your comments and observations.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected]

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