The Changing Forest of the Quetico-Superior Region

Last year we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Quetico Park and Superior National Forest. In reality, this anniversary commemorated the 100-year fight to protect this patch of earth. Throughout the twentieth century the assault of logging, mining, dams, roads, mechanized tourism and resort development all threatened, and, in some cases, wounded the area. With the special protection afforded the BWCA Wilderness and Quetico Park today, most of those threats have faded. But a new shadow looms over Quetico-Superior in the 21st century.

Esteemed scientist Dr. Lee Frelich, spoke to a gathering of the Heart of the Continent Partnership in April 2010. He presented compelling evidence that, as a direct result of climate change, the BWCAW and Quetico Provincial Park will soon transform from a southern boreal forest biome to savanna. Two years ago Alissa Johnson interviewed Frelich for the Wilderness News. At that time his predictions were tentative. The intervening two years of research and data have solidified his opinions. Frelich believes the only questions are: What the savanna will look like. How many decades will it take? And, how “messy” will the transition be? Already there is scientific proof that a biological shift is taking place.

Frelich’s prediction is hard to accept, not so much because of the science but because of the emotion. People love the Quetico-Superior region as it is. They value its apparent timelessness. In the presence of giant white pines, portaging through a thicket of black spruce or paddling from lake to lake, we like to believe that this land is as it always was and will be, to eternity. It is that kind of thinking that resulted in a policy of fire suppression that, even without climate change, undermined the health of the boreal forest. Emotionally, it was just too hard to accept the awful power of a wildfire as a positive and natural force. It will be equally difficult to accept the coming savannification. But one cold summer does not a boreal forest make. Even so, lovers of the Quetico-Superior region, as it has been, have a lifetime of memories to feed the battle in their heads. When nostalgia wins out over fact, we look back instead of forward.

How can Frelich be so sure? Quetico-Superior is close to the prairie/forest border and this border is not permanent. More subtle climate changes in the past have resulted major biome shifts. This time, change is coming like a freight train, so fast that the thin strip of hardwood forest that separates the prairie from the boreal forest will likely be skipped or amalgamated into the predominate savanna.

Other factors are accelerating the rate of change. Earthworms that were introduced as bait for fishing have invaded Quetico-Superior landscape. Where they have established themselves they have eliminated the insulating forest duff layer raising soil temperatures and drying and stressing trees. Native and exotic bugs that would have been kept in check by 40 below zero cold snaps are instead attacking boreal trees. Whitetail deer are moving northward, increasing their numbers, and disrupting boreal succession.

What about mitigating factors? Increased CO2 in the atmosphere has made it easier for trees to survive on less water but this is so minor it hardly bears reporting. Frelich dismisses any collaborative international effort to curb carbon emissions as too little, too late, and too unlikely to arrest climate change in time to stop savannification.

So what will a Quetico-Superior savanna look like? Frelich hopes it will be an oak savanna: native grasslands interspersed with Burr Oak, and other interesting species such as the Kentucky Coffee tree. Perhaps, in microclimates caused by topography or in extraordinary soils, remnant stands of red or white pine might survive and groves of mixed hardwoods may thrive. Moose and spruce will be gone. Nevertheless, the thought of a two million acre savanna wilderness is intriguing. Imagine the combination of prairie grasslands, scattered oaks and the granite outcroppings with the glacial lakes of the border country. The savanna biome in its natural state is exquisitely beautiful and rare. Quetico and the BWCAW could become even more unique than they are today. And it is no longer a choice. The coming climate will be similar to northern Iowa’s climate of today. Pretending such a climate will continue to support a boreal forest or the animals that depend on a boreal forest is as wrongheaded as believing intensive fire suppression was a good idea last century. The scary news is that a future emergence of the graceful Burr Oak savanna woven into the border lakes is not guaranteed.

Frelich stated that even under ideal conditions transitions from forests to savannas are long and “messy”. In a changing climate existing forests are quick to blow down and burn, but it takes hundreds of years for new species to move in and fully establish themselves. This might be especially true in the Quetico-Superior region. Intensive agriculture has supplanted the Oak Savanna in almost all of southern Minnesota. As the climate zones shift north there may not be sufficient existing seed sources to replace the fast retreating boreal forests. Unfortunately, people wiped out the last of the Wooly Mammoths long ago and nature will not wait for the slow march of gravity-dispersed seeds. Frelich fears that instead of native species, savannification in the Quetico-Superior could be dominated by opportunistic exotics such as Buckthorn and European thistles. A campsite choked with waist deep thistle is a future scenario not nearly so appealing as a wayside in a native Burr Oak savanna.

Nature may need a helping hand. Currently the Wilderness Act prohibits the level of intervention necessary to facilitate a timely transition to a natural American savanna. Being proactive and modifying the regulations may be a better use of energy than nostalgically refusing to accept change. To be stewards of Quetico-Superior today will take a different approach than last century’s successful efforts to set aside, protect and preserve.

Frelich was not optimistic about international cooperation to reduce carbon emissions and other efforts to curb global warming, he does believe local action can help slow savannification and increase the chance of native plant recruitment. One suggestion is to stop using live bait for fishing. Although live bait has been banned in Quetico it is still legal in Superior National Forest. Current research proves this is an unconscionable choice. Owners of cabins in the region should not bring in potted plants, burlap balled nursery trees, firewood or any product that might be transporting bugs or worms. It takes a long time for a worm to wiggle from Chicago to Quetico-Superior but if they can hitch a ride they are in.

One last thing, we need to begin to reframe the way we think. Next time you plan to do a little canoeing in the BWCA Wilderness or Quetico Park – instead of calling it a canoe trip, call it a ‘canoeing safari’.

By Rob Kesselring

Prairie Border Savanna. Photo by Layne Kennedy
Prairie Border Savanna. Photo by Layne Kennedy



This article appeared in Wilderness News Summer 2010

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