Saving the Great Lakes will require new ways of thinking about, and working on, conservation. We need to think of the largest freshwater ecosystem as whole; we need to overcome geopolitical boundaries; and we need to remember, and apply, the history of the special places we love. These lessons, and more, were brought home to me by a recent visit to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Haunted Forest Preserve.
The South Side of North is where you will find the Garden Peninsula, home to the 574 acre Haunted Forest Preserve. The Garden Peninsula is on the north shore of Lake Michigan, extending 22 miles from the south side of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It matches Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and the two rocky points of land form Green Bay and Big Bay De Noc, which are among the most productive fisheries in the Great Lakes.
Geologically, the 420 million year-old Garden Peninsula is part of the Niagara Escarpment, the hard edge of a tipped bowl underlying the Great Lakes. The erosion-resistant capstone is dolomitic limestone, also called dolostone, or more popularly, dolomite. It forms not only Niagara Falls, but also Canada’s Bruce Peninsula, the Manitoulin Islands, and Michigan’s Drummond Island, home to TNC’s Maxton Plains Preserve where a rare biotic community, called an alvar, forms in thin soils above flat limestone pavement. On the Garden Peninsula, the white stone is revealed in high cliffs along the blue water.
The Haunted Forest Preserve gets it name from a larger, mature white cedar forest, inaccessible (fortunately) to loggers over years past and still inaccessible (unfortunately) to most visitors, like me, my wife Anna, and the three college students who were with us on their first trip to the Upper Peninsula. The 574 acre Preserve consists of several points of land divided by a curving and rocky shoreline, steep cliffs, hardwood forests, and coastal wetlands. It is the wetlands, and the shallow near-shore areas, that give this place its ecological importance. This pristine, undisturbed overlap of land and water serves as a rich spawning ground for fish and a valuable habitat for migratory and other birds. We were stopped several times on our walk by the sight of a pair of bald eagles soaring over the Preserve and neighboring bays. In all, The Nature Conservancy has protected six miles of Great Lakes coastline on the Garden Peninsula.
The political boundaries of the Great Lakes sometimes get in the way of saving them. Not only does an international border divide four of the five lakes, but eight states exercise different programs and regulations to protect the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Fortunately, a number of official bodies coordinate the government efforts, and non-governmental organizations have evolved to look at the Great Lakes from an ecosystem point of view. The Nature Conservancy’s Great Lakes Project takes a whole system perspective and combines the efforts of several state chapters, engages the Governors of the Great Lakes states, and uses science to direct conservation where most needed, regardless of boundaries or bureaucracies.
The Haunted Forest Preserve came to be because people’s love for the environment is also not constrained by political boundaries. The Nature Conservancy used its traditional method of working with landowners and funders, from several states, to acquire land through donation, purchase, and easement protection. The Preserve lies in Michigan, but it owes its protection to both private and public support from Wisconsin.
Big Bay de Noc, on the western side of the Garden Peninsula, is part of the larger Green Bay ecological region. The natural features have supported a vibrant human economy, from fisheries to logging to agriculture to shipping to tourism. Unfortunately, overuse has damaged the watershed lands, created some toxic hotspots, and eliminated more than 70 percent of the wetlands in the area. The Fox River & Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council was formed to help restore the ecosystem following some of this despoilment. While most of the attention has been given to the southern, Wisconsin end of Green Bay, The Nature Conservancy recognized that saving the wetlands of the Garden Peninsula, would help the entire Green Bay ecosystem recover from its historical mistreatment. Thus, funds from Wisconsin came to save part of Michigan; all of it making the Great Lakes healthier.
Fayette: Learning from History. While the future of the Great Lakes can be seen on the Garden Peninsula, so too can its history; the lessons from both present and past are valuable. It surprises many to learn that this quiet, remote part of the Great Lakes was a 19th century center of the iron industry. Just south of the Haunted Forest Preserve is the former community, now State Historic Park, of Fayette. Natural resources–access to Great Lakes shipping, a great harbor, and proximity to dolomitic limestone and hardwood fuel–led the Jackson Iron Company to build a smelter here in 1867. Iron ore was shipped here, then refined to pig iron before being sent on to the growing industries of the Midwest. A booming community took over the shoreline for several decades, and today many of the buildings still exist in a well-preserved and well-presented condition. It is well worth the drive, or the sail, to this historic spot.
Walking through the Haunted Forest Preserve we discovered, amidst the tall and strong maple and beech forest, an important lesson from history. To fuel the smelters of Fayette, the timber was stripped from the entire Garden Peninsula to be fed into charcoal kilns. After the clear-cutting, farmers made a stab at establishing an agricultural economy. But over time, farming could not use all the available land. As we explored the Preserve I felt as if we were in Vermont as we came across old stone walls and large piles of the rock pulled out, by hand, from farm fields that have now reverted to mature, second-growth forests. The end of Fayette as an economic powerhouse came because they ran out of fuel, because they had an unsustainable business model.
Sustainability. Throughout the Upper Peninsula, one sees frequent reminders of the dangers of building an economy solely on the one-time use of natural resources. Time and again, unchecked logging, rampant mining, and overfishing have created boom and bust communities that failed to last. Today, you come across massive white pine stumps, rusting mining equipment, slag piles, empty ports, and even whole abandoned towns that remind us of the dangers of over-exploiting our natural resource. Fortunately, the times are changing in the Upper Peninsula. The Nature Conservancy is creating a sustainable logging model and is working with private timber companies to forever protect forest lands both for economic and environmental benefits (read more). Mining continues as part of the Michigan economy, but the economy has diversified and better policies and practices minimize damage.
On the Garden Peninsula, farming continues as part of the regional economy. The natural beauty of the area and the historic resource of Fayette now supports a tourism economy, and the healthy waters and wetlands of the Green Bay-Big Bay de Noc aquatic ecosystem encourages both recreational and commercial fishing. One other sign of a sustainable future is seen in the presence of windmills generating electricity from the non-polluting wind blowing across the Garden Peninsula. Of course, none of this happens without attention to the impacts of human activity and a commitment to managing both the ecosystem and the economy. Science-based policies are necessary to ensure that windmills are sited and operated to minimize impacts on birds and bats, logging and mining needs to be sensibly regulated, and the best and important lands and water of the area need to be preserved. The future, cognizant of the past, shows much promise.