True North—Land&People

A few miles west of Ely, Minnesota, an unmarked dirt road departs the highway to run gently downhill toward the shore of Burntside Lake, one of northern Minnesota’s largest, most beautiful, and best-known lakes. Pine boughs and birch branches touched with the first yellow of fall whip the sides of a small bus bringing a private tour group to Listening Point, the woodsy, lakeside retreat of Sigurd Olson, a patron saint of conservation in the upper Midwest.

Olson, who lived in Ely and died in 1982 at the age of 84, authored five best-selling books based on his experience in North America’s northern forests—each book exalting contact with wilderness as essential to the spiritual health of human beings. A wildlife ecologist by training and a philosopher by nature, he was also a skilled and dedicated advocate for wilderness, a leader in the Izaak Walton League and The Wilderness Society, advisor to government leaders, and a primary shaper of the nation’s 1964 Wilderness Act. Listening Point was Olson’s getaway during busy decades of writing and conservation work. It was, he wrote, “dedicated to recapturing [the] almost forgotten sense of wonder and learning from rocks and trees and all the life that is found there, truths that can encompass all.”

Olson’s rustic, one-room cabin is still tucked into the pines, back from the water. And one of his canoes still lies in the woods near the beach along the 36-acre property’s narrow entry trail. “We try to keep the property pretty much as Sig would have,” Chuck Wick tells the tour group from The Trust for Public Land. Wick, who knew Olson well, is vice chairman of the Listening Point Foundation, dedicated to preserving Olson’s legacy and message. “Our client is the human spirit,” he says.

Listening Point itself—granite decked in low-lying bearberry and shaded by pines—offers a sweeping view of Burntside Lake all but unchanged since Olson’s day: an expanse of dark blue lake speckled with even darker islands. In part, it is to hear the story of one of these islands that the group has come to Listening Point.

Among the visitors are Jeff and Sharon Rome, who until 2004 owned half of the lake’s largest undeveloped island, visible on the horizon from Listening Point. (Jeff’s sister owned the other half.) The island is wild; its 43 acres of timber have never been harvested. Its only building is the Romes’ rustic one-room cabin, built as a primitive refuge after they bought the island in 1990. “We thought we’d pass the island on to our kids,” Jeff Rome tells the group, “but circumstances changed and we had to sell, which could have led to the land’s development. We couldn’t have that.”

With the tour members now seated on logs facing the lake, TPL senior project manager Shaun Hamilton picks up the story. A solid, bearded man, Hamilton works with landowners, private forest owners, and national forest managers across three states to preserve threatened northern forestlands for wildlife habitat and recreation. He learned of the threat to Long Island from concerned officials at the Superior National Forest, which manages the adjacent Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness, a 12,000-mile network of canoe trails through deep-woods lakes and rivers south of the Canadian border.

But while the island instantly rose to the top of the Superior National Forest’s wish list for new land acquisitions, it could have been years before full federal funding was available. Fortunately, TPL was able to meet the Romes’ needs to sell quickly, giving the national forest some breathing room until federal funds become available. Hamilton negotiated a purchase price with the Romes, and TPL became the island’s owner, at least for a while.

The Threatened Northwoods

Sigurd Olson is not the only pioneering conservationist and nature writer to have drawn inspiration from the woods and waters of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—an area long known here as the “Northwoods.” Aldo Leopold, whose 1949 book A Sand County Almanac postulated a “land ethic” and became a Bible for later conservationists, tramped and paddled as far north as the northern shores of Lake Huron as a youth. And young John Muir, who would become one of the nation’s most famous nature writers and founder of the Sierra Club, left his home in southern Wisconsin for a Northwoods sojourn into Canada in order to escape the draft during the U.S. Civil War. Letters Muir sent a friend from the Northwoods found their way into a Boston newspaper: his first published nature writing.

Today, the spiritual descendants of these Midwest conservationists are in a race against time to protect the best of what’s left of tens of millions of undeveloped acres south and west of Lake Superior. The Northwoods have been central to the Midwest’s economy, way of life, and imagination since soon after Europeans settled here. Timber harvesting on both public and private forests has provided good jobs for local communities. Lumber from the region’s forests built Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Saint Paul, even as residents of those cities headed north in all seasons to vacation at a lakeside lodge, campground, or cabin. Visitors swam in the summer, hunted in the fall, skied in the winter, fished in the spring, and willingly swatted mosquitoes for half the year for a chance to be out in the woods.

But rising land values and landownership changes are now threatening those forests and the jobs and recreation they support. According to the Blandin Foundation, which focuses on economic issues in rural Minnesota, the value of the state’s forestlands has jumped 12 to 25 percent each year since 2000. As prices rise, private forests are passing from timber companies to real estate investment groups focused on quick profits from development. Within national forests, private parcels long used for a rustic cabin or camp are passing to developers and speculators, who seek to maximize return on the increasingly valuable properties by constructing 4,000-square-foot trophy homes or subdividing the land for second-home development.

According to Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, more than 400,000 acres of Minnesota’s private forests have been permanently lost to development since 1989. By some estimates, as many as a million acres of the state’s northern forests are currently at risk of subdivision—which would put them off limits to hunting and recreation, remove them from timber production, and dramatically decrease their value as wildlife habitat. The land rush is also on in northern Wisconsin, where private forests are being cut up into increasingly small ownerships, population growth is above the state average, and housing density is increasing, especially around lakes.

“In the Northwoods, water is the big attraction for development,” says Phil Barker, lands program manager for northern Wisconsin’s 1.5 million-acre Chequamegon- Nicolet National Forest (pronounced “Shwamagon- Nickolay”). A sinewy, tanned man with 30 years’ experience in the U.S. Forest Service, Barker carries a mountain bike in the back of his green Forest Service pickup, the better to monitor recreational trails across his domain. But his main job is acquiring land to meet the forest’s long-term management objectives. And one of the main objectives at the moment is to pick up stillpristine lake frontage while he still can.

On a bright September day, Barker drives a visitor along narrow roads south of Ashland, Wisconsin. The roadsides sprout with real estate signs that tell the tale: at every intersection where roads head off into the forest, they advertise a “waterfront cabin” or “lake frontage” for sale. By one estimate, at the current state of development there will be no truly wild lakes left in Wisconsin by 2020. So troubling is the trend that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in partnership with TPL and other conservation organizations, has launched a Wild Lakes Program to stem development on wild lakes by purchasing land or easements.

Phil Barker’s purview is lakes within the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. As the forest’s real estate specialist, he is the official whose phone rings when someone wants to see land protected within the national forest. And often, once Phil learns about land needing protection, it is Shaun Hamilton’s phone that rings next. Every year the forest tries to do one big conservation project and pick up other small parcels where it can, Barker says.

“Usually TPL is our main project sponsor, and often they’ve stepped in to buy the land and hold it for us until funding comes through. The biggest goal from my perspective is preservation—to protect wildlife and fisheries and prevent forest fragmentation,” Barker explains. “If a parcel gets developed, you can end up with a donut hole of development and forest service land all around it. We want as few of those as possible.”

To demonstrate the alternative, Barker drives five miles down a narrowing dirt road, dust billowing up behind the pickup. Parking at a metal gate, he strikes off on foot through birches and old-growth white pines to the shore of Mirror Lake, which TPL helped protect in 2006. A stone fire ring and a crudely crafted table sit beneath tall pines at the lakeshore, where anglers and campers have visited over the years. A tottering dock extends into the lake’s placid expanse, dimpled by jumping fish and as wild as when a receding glacier gouged it from the region’s granite underpinning 10,000 years ago. Plans for the lake are still up in the air, Barker says. The important thing is that there will be a 200-square-foot primitive campsite here rather than a 4,000-square-foot house.

A Fund for the Northwoods

Protecting an area as large as the Northwoods requires the efforts of many civic and government leaders, local businesses, and conservation groups. Across the region, TPL works in partnership with a range of groups and organizations, including the Quetico-Superior Foundation, the Listening Point Foundation, the Lake Superior Land Trust Partnership, Friends of the Boundary Waters, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Strong support has also come from the congressional delegation in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

TPL began working in the region as far back as the 1980s. In 2000, as the urgency to act increased along with the number of projects, TPL launched the Northwoods Initiative—a focused program to protect land across the region—with Shaun Hamilton as its director.

To date the initiative has helped protect more than 70,000 acres, including not only high-quality habitat and recreation lands added to the region’s six national forests, but also land protected under working forest easements on private timberlands. Typically such easements prohibit development and protect the land’s natural values while maintaining public access and stipulating sustainable forestry. In this way, the easements preserve traditional forest jobs and recreation.

If the initiative has a single birthplace, it is Forest Lodge on Lake Namakagon, 30 miles south of Ashland in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. This large lake, one of the loveliest in Wisconsin, is the headwaters of the Saint Croix River National Scenic Riverway, a popular canoe stream that extends 250 miles south and west to the Twin Cities. For more than a century, Forest Lodge had been in the family of Mary Griggs Burke, a Saint Paul native and a well-known New York art collector and philanthropist. The 870-acre property includes the lodge and Mrs. Burke’s carefully tended gardens, old-growth hemlock and hardwood forests, an island, and a point of land across a narrow channel from the estate.

In the late 1990s, Shaun Hamilton was looking at a map of the region and recognized the significance of the Forest Lodge property for conservation. Mrs. Burke, for her part, had been thinking about what would happen to the property after she died. Shaun called Mrs. Burke and went to visit. And he went back again and again. The agreement they eventually worked out will see the house and immediate grounds protected as a historic resource while creating an area dedicated to scientific research, another preserved for its scenic qualities, and another set aside as a nature trail and botanical area. The land was donated to TPL and transferred to the Forest Service in 1999. An endowment made possible by Mrs. Burke will support long-term Forest Service stewardship of the land. She retains the right to summer at Forest Lodge until her death. Long-range plans now in development call for a conference center and environmental education programs at Forest Lodge.

But it was another piece of the transaction that put wind in the sails of TPL’s Northwoods Initiative. At the same time that Mrs. Burke protected the property, she also created TPL’s Northwoods Land Protection Fund, to be used to protect land across the region until it can be transferred to public ownership.

Back at Listening Point, Hamilton explains that it was this fund that made it possible for TPL to protect Long Island and more than 20 other properties in the Northwoods so far. TPL hopes to begin conveying Long Island to Superior National Forest in early 2007, as federal funding becomes available. As money from the Northwoods Land Protection Fund is freed up, TPL can use it to conserve other northern forest properties. And to the extent that additional donors feed the fund, more money will be available to meet the rising need for conservation across the region.

“But we shouldn’t fool ourselves,” says Hamilton. “Conservationists can pick up the most important and threatened parcels in the Northwoods, but we can’t protect all the land that needs protecting. Somehow the conservation process itself has to help us change our attitudes about the land. A new relationship with the land should emerge from the work.”

In the final chapter of his book about his lakeside refuge, Sigurd Olson calls Listening Point “my own particular ‘back of the beyond,'” speculating that as long as he owned it, “it would never change. Though someone might build on one of those islands, the development would be far enough away so it could never be seen clearly. Nothing would ever destroy this lookout point of mine to the undeveloped north.”

Which goes to show that even a gifted writer can suffer a lapse of imagination. Having in mind cabins rather than modern-day castles, he was wrong about the potential effect of houses on the view. But more important, he didn’t imagine that there would come a time when the whole notion of an “undeveloped north” would seem na?ve—when forests would become more important for lakefront building lots than for lumber. It’s a safe bet that if Olson were alive today, he would still be on the forefront of efforts to protect the region he loved so well. Olson’s friend and disciple Chuck Wick has a succinct message for the TPL tour group: “We encourage you to find another island to protect.”

William Poole is the editor of Land&People. Tours of Listening Point are available by prior arrangement only—more information at