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Gile Flowage to be protected in perpetuity with NOAA grant

Katie Thoresen

Standing on the shores of the Gile Flowage near the dam, Cathy Techtmann points out some of the unique geological features that can be seen along the shoreline and islands.

“We have this, like I said, greenstone. It’s some of the oldest rocks in the world, evidence of volcanoes here, there's just so many magical things about this place to explore,” said Techtmann.

The roughly 3,400-acre flowage is located in Iron County between Highways 51 and 77 south of Hurley.

Long before it was a flowage, Native Americans used the area as a travel corridor between LaPointe on Madeline Island and Lac du Flambeau.

It was later used by fur traders in the 1700s along what was called “The Flambeau Trail.”

“This was basically the interchange between the Atlantic watershed and the Pacific watershed, if you can think of it that way,” said Techtmann.

Mining companies came to the Penokee Range in the late 1800s in search of iron ore deposits. The remnants of which can still be found throughout the surrounding communities.

In the 1940s, the dam was built on the west branch of the Montreal River to help control the flow to the downstream hydro facility which created what is now the Gile Flowage.

“There's no power generation here,” Techtmann said standing near the dam. “This just creates the holding pond, a big, big holding pond, for hydro that's generated closer to Lake Superior. There's two hydro generating stations at Superior Falls and Saxon Falls.”

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"Most people don't know about this place. I mean, they think of Iron County, they think of the Turtle Flambeau Flowage, which is bigger and a different type of flowage, it's a sandy bottom flowage. This is a boundary waters type flowage, which is rugged country. This flowage, which can get very rough with the wind, it's wild," said Cathy Techtmann, President of the Friends of the Gile Flowage.

Today the flowage is used by many for recreation. On a windy spring weekday, town crews were repairing the Gile Park boat launch that had been damaged by ice shoves. People were out walking along and even fishing along the shore.

But even with people enjoying the Gile Flowage, it doesn’t take more than a short drive to find quieter parts where the only sounds are that of the water and the wildlife.

The geology, the cultural significance, and its environmental importance are just a few of the things Techtmann has committed to memory about the flowage.

“If you could see it from above or on a map, it looks like a heart to me. Of course, I love it. So, it's going to be heart shape, right?” Techtmann said with a laugh.

Techtmann loves it so much she’s dedicated a part of her life to preserving it.

She’s the president of the Friends of the Gile Flowage organization that was started more than 20 years ago along with her neighbors that live on or nearby the flowage. Their goal is to preserve the water quality, fishery, and its aesthetic beauty.

Techtmann worked with the Iron County Forester and Wisconsin Coastal Management to apply for a $4.1 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] Office for Coastal Management.

It took applying twice. Last month they learned they were awarded it.

“We really worked with our towns, and our county fully supported it, our tribal communities that are neighboring, everybody was in full support of it. That's what really, I think, did the trick,” said Techtmann.

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Techtmann shows a hand drawn map of the Gile Flowage. The green colored sections are the land that Iron County is planning to buy with the NOAA grant.

The funds will allow Iron County to buy more than 1,000 acres of land around the flowage from Xcel Energy.

It’s a project that’s been in the works for years, but something Techtmann says the county wouldn’t be able to do without the federal funding.

“We're a small county under 6,000 people. There's no way we could afford to do this ourselves,” she said.

Iron County Forest Administrator Eric Peterson agrees.

“It is the reason that it’s going to happen. We've looked at other funding sources. Many of them would provide up to 50% of the funding. But in a project of that size, that still would leave too big of a financial burden for our county to close the deal,” said Peterson. “The fact that we were able to get 100% funding for this through NOAA and Wisconsin Coastal Management is huge.”

Iron County is a coastal county of Lake Superior. The Gile Flowage and Montreal River flow into the great lake.

The new parcels will add to a contiguous block of county-owned land.

It will be under County Forest Law and put into a special use designation. Iron County currently manages more than 175,000 acres of county forest land, according to the Wisconsin County Forest Association.

There may be some timber management in the upland areas, but Peterson says it will mostly be managed for recreation and conservation.

“It just provides an opportunity to protect a part of northern Wisconsin that is undeveloped and has a lot of high quality forested wetlands and undeveloped shoreline. That's not necessarily common in northern Wisconsin anymore,” said Peterson.

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For Techtmann, protecting these waters and woods has endless benefits.

It will keep access to the flowage open for public use.

“The solitude that you can get, the fun that you can have on it paddling a kayak or canoe or swimming in it or just walking on the shore,” said Techtmann.

The Bad River and Lac du Flambeau Tribes will have access for hunting and fishing because it ensures it will remain public land.

“It's important too for our tribal communities that also supported this project because it makes sure that there'll be treaty rights access,” said Techtmann.

It will preserve habitats and reduce flood risks. Iron County has dealt with catastrophic flooding in the past. It’s an area of the state that is expected to see increased risk as our climate changes.

“This area is highly vulnerable to flooding. We're in a high vulnerability for climate change, so keeping these ecosystems and wetlands intact, not being developed, it decreases erosion and helps increase our resiliency,” she explained.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for Techtmann is it will allow this wild place to just be wild.

“We want to make sure people can have fun and be safe out here. But we want to keep that wildness as well because it's disappearing in the Northwoods,” said Techtmann. “Things are getting more and more developed, but because of this wonderful opportunity, this place will stay as much like this as we can in perpetuity.”

The NOAA grant will be finalized this August. The Wisconsin Department of Administration (DOA) is set to receive a total of $4.6 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act as part of $75 million distributed through the NOAA Office of Coastal Management.

The $4.1 million will go to Iron County. The remaining $500,000 will support the Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Valley Creek Corridor project in the city of Port Washington.

For the Gile Flowage project, appraisals, surveys, and title work still needs to be done. Peterson thinks all the work and sales will be finalized by the end of 2025 at the latest.

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Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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