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Northwoods Alliance secures federal grant to establish Headwaters Cedar Community Forest

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Northwoods Alliance
A cedar stand on the Headwaters Cedar Community Forest property

A local conservation group is a step closer to opening its second community forest in the Northwoods. If it’s successful, the Headwaters Cedar Community Forest will open 200 acres of land to the public and preserve it for future generations.

The Border Lakes are as clear as the cloudless sky on a sunny day in September.

Named for their location on the border of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the lakes are situated on a geographic border too.

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Northwoods Alliance
The Headwaters Cedar Community Forest is located less than a mile from the Devils Lake Vista at the subcontinental watershed divide.

On one side of a sub-continental divide, water flows north through the Ontonagon River to Lake Superior. On the other side, water runs south, eventually reaching the Mississippi River and spilling into the Gulf of Mexico.

“It really is a prized area for conservation because it is so ecologically important,” says Joe Hovel, the acting director of the Northwoods Alliance, a nonprofit organization which aims to conserve land and water in the Border Lakes region.

“You’ve got cedar and white pine stands here which are just beautiful,” he says, pointing to clusters of trees along a winding county highway.

Hovel has been working to protect this forest for decades, but the crusade is difficult.

“It’s been ravaged by fragmentation and development,” he says.

That’s why the Northwoods Alliance jumped on the opportunity to purchase and preserve 200 acres of land when a private landowner approached them looking to sell his property.

“To his credit, he wants to see the land protected,” Hovel says. “It could be destroyed in a heartbeat in this crazy market. My goodness, there’s new driveways going in everywhere you look.”

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Northwoods Alliance
A family of black bears crosses a board walk on the Tenderfoot Reserve, just a mile northwest of the Headwaters Cedar Community Forest property.

Instead of selling the land for summer homes or an ATV park, the Northwoods Alliance is raising money to convert the land into a Community Forest.

The organization was just awarded a $200,000 federal grant from the U.S. Forest Service to do that. The money will cover about half of the project’s expected cost.

If they’re successful, the Headwaters Cedar Community Forest will be the second Community Forest established in the region. The Northwoods Alliance protected the area surrounding Wildcat Falls near Watersmeet in 2020.

Establishing the Headwaters Cedar Community Forest will open the land to the public for things like hunting, hiking and birdwatching. The land can serve as an outdoor classroom for students in grades k-12 and as grounds for university research.

At the same time, it’ll protect wildlife habitat and ensure the land is managed as a whole.

“When it’s under single ownership, that landowner or that group that owns it can manage those acres for whatever purposes they want,” says Neal Bungard, the Community Forest Program Manager for the eastern region of the U.S. “But if the land is fragmented, you might have 50 different managements, so you get this fragmented pattern that’s not necessarily natural because it’s following property lines instead of streams or ridge lines or ecosystem types in the property.”

Bungard says one of the program’s biggest benefits is that it keeps land in local control.

“It gets a lot of popularity because there’s strong interest in keeping local decisions local and keeping it forested,” he says.

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Northwoods Alliance
The proposed Headwaters Cedar Community Forest, surrounded by state forest land, is indicated in pink.

The Forest Service funds about a dozen Community Forest projects annually.

Joe Hovel is thrilled that this land was selected to be one. But the process hasn’t been easy.

“Why does it take such monumental dedication to protect a parcel of land?” he questions. “I’ve been working on this for a year already, and it seems like we’re making steps, but they’re baby steps frankly. Yet, if this landowner would have wanted to see this property sold and didn’t care about the end use of it, he could have made a phone call. That would have been the end of it.”

With the forest service grant and a few other sources of funding, the Northwoods Alliance has raised about two-thirds of the project’s total cost.

Hovel estimates the organization will establish the Community Forest by the summer of 2023.

It might take many more baby steps, but Hovel is willing to go the distance, no matter how long that may be.

“We’re faced with incredible challenges going forward. Not only are we faced with a changing climate, but we’re faced with an extinction crisis,” he says. “I think the old saying, think globally, but act locally really comes to play here. If we can do anything at the local level, that’s what we have to do.”

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Erin Gottsacker joined WXPR in December 2020. As a Morning Edition host and reporter, Erin reports on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.