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So many of us live in Wisconsin’s Northwoods or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because we love what surrounds us every day. We love the clear water, the clean air, and the lush forests. WXPR’s environmental reporting as part of our expanded series, The Stream, focuses on the natural world around us. The Stream is now about more than just water: it brings you stories of efforts to conserve our wild lands and lakes, scientific studies of animal and plant life, and potential threats to our environment. Hear The Stream on Thursdays on WXPR and access episodes any time online.

National Forest Withdraws Maintenance, Closes Some Campgrounds, Frustrating Longtime Visitors

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Ambling down a path through the forest to a serene lake, Greg Krueger explains why he likes this area.

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Greg Krueger, who camps in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest several weekends each summer.

“This is a really nice place. You have a really nice, clearwater lake with a great sand bottom for swimming, boating. You have a really good network of roads here for road biking where you can go out in all directions and really have a long way to go without needing to ride on a highway. You’ve got a really beautiful forest here,” he says.

The lake, Sevenmile Lake, is in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It straddles the border between Forest and Oneida counties near Three Lakes.

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A view from the beach at Sevenmile Lake.

On top of the reasons Krueger gave, there used to be another highlight here. The National Forest maintained a campground with more than 20 sites.

But now, a walk through the campground reveals overgrown grass sprouting through picnic tables.

Paint peels off of a sign with a local map.

It’s a beautiful Northwoods weekend, but there’s no one in sight.

“To come up here now and see this closed when, really, the recreation economy across the state seems to be doing very well, it’s kind of sad, I would say,” Krueger says.

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Visitors are still welcome to come to the Sevenmile Lake area, but its campground is no longer maintained.

Krueger once lived in Eagle River. He’s now in La Crosse but comes north several weekends a year for camping in the National Forest with his girlfriend.

Krueger is part of a booming Wisconsin recreation economy worth $7.8 billion dollars annually, an economy which only grew as people looked for outdoor options during a pandemic.

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A gate blocks the road to the former Sevenmile Lake campground. Despite what the sign says, there is no plan to reopen the site.

Even with that backdrop, Sevenmile Lake is one of eight campgrounds being closed by the National Forest.

“I think to see this shut and to see what’s happening here would be completely understandable if tourism were really low in the area, if you were seeing a lull in the recreation economy, and you were seeing fewer visitors up to areas like this throughout northern Wisconsin,” Krueger says. “But what’s kind of interesting is, if you look at the Midwest as a whole, camping and outdoor recreation right now are extremely popular.”

The campgrounds are among 23 total recreation sites being closed by the National Forest as part of its 2019 Recreation Facility Strategy.

Infrastructure is being removed, and the sites are being allowed to fade back into the forest.

The reason?

Federal funding has not increased with the cost of doing business.

“The driving factors were our costs associated with running the recreation sites, both for recurring, deferred maintenance and staffing costs,” says Mark Beuning, the Technical Services Staff Officer for the National Forest.

The strategy is projected to save the forest $300,000 annually.

In addition to the closures, 52 sites will see no change, and 118 sites will see a change of a different kind: fee increases for some, better infrastructure for others.

The National Forest considered several factors when deciding how to treat campgrounds.

“The condition of the campground factored into it. Proximity to other campgrounds that provided a similar level of service factored into it, and then the use of those campgrounds,” Beuning says.

National Forest staff has started dismantling some of the sites slated for closure, removing picnic tables and fire rings.

Toilets and heavier infrastructure are next, steps that would extinguish any reason for most visitors to come.

“We understand some members of the public were disappointed. They’ve been using campgrounds for years or possibly generations,” Beuning says. “It’s certainly understandable that members of the public would be disappointed when some sites were closed.”

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Numbers still mark the designated campsites at Sevenmile Lake, but there are no campers here anymore.

Though the course seems set, Greg Krueger wishes the National Forest would switch directions on decommissioning the sites.

He’s frustrated that he and his girlfriend are losing options, no longer able to camp at places like Sevenmile Lake.

“I think the strength in a National Forest recreation system like this lies, in large part, in the sheer variety of experiences it can provide,” he says.

Later on the day of his interview, Krueger sent an email with a story.

He and his girlfriend were still swimming at the Sevenmile Lake beach when a father and son from the Chicago suburbs showed up.

They had camped at Sevenmile Lake every year as a family tradition.

Now, every year, they walk through the deserted campground as a way to preserve the memories.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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