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Wisconsin Lakeshore Restoration Project - Background


This study quantifies the ecological benefits of lakeshore habitat conservation and restoration by measuring riparian ecosystem health (via biotic surveys) before, during, and after conservation and restoration activities on 5 developed lakes in the Northern Highlands Ecological Landscape in northcentral Wisconsin.  Projects restore and conserve native vegetation within the lakeshore vegetation buffer zone of private and public properties voluntarily participating in the project, and biologists quantify the benefits of restoration activities by conducting habitat and plant and animal species surveys at reference, control, and treatment lakes before restoration occurs and in subsequent years.  Findings support WDNR NR115 Shoreland Management Program.

Shoreland restoration projects have been completed at 5 lakes (Found Lake, Moon Lake, Lost Lake, Little St. Germain, and Crystal Lake) in Vilas County.  Work began on Found Lake 2007-2008 in partnership with WDNR, MTU, VCLWCD and WDATCP.  A total of 13 landowners participated with the Found Lake project, and an additional 6 property owners participated on the Lost Lake projects 2010-11. 


Rural landscapes in the Midwestern United States have experienced dramatic changes in recent decades due to residential development (Radeloff et al., 2005).  Residential development in rural landscapes causes fragmentation and loss of wildlife habitat (Theobald et al., 1997) thus poses a serious threat to biodiversity (Wilcove et al., 1998; Czech et al., 2000). Humans are inclined to construct primary or secondary homes in and around natural areas because they provide amenity values such as recreation and scenery (Schnaiberg et al., 2002). Freshwater ecosystems have attracted people and development for centuries (Naiman, 1996; Riera et al., 2001).  In northern Wisconsin, residential development has increased over 200% along lakeshores in recent decades (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources [WDNR], 1996; Radeloff et al., 2001; Gonzales-Abraham et al., 2007).  

In 1968, the State of Wisconsin attempted to protect lakeshore habitat by implementing ordinances that mandated vegetation cutting standards in a buffer zone along lakeshores.  The Wisconsin Shoreland Management Program Chapter NR 115 states that vegetation within a buffer zone must be left intact for 10.8 m (35 feet) inland from the ordinary high water mark and no more than 9.1m (30 feet) for every 30.5 m (100 feet) of shoreline can be cleared of vegetation. This program recommended the remaining shoreline be left in a naturally vegetated state. However, many lakeshore owners routinely ignore or are unaware of these ordinances which often results in the removal of vegetation structure along shorelines (Christensen et al., 1996; Elias and Meyer, 2003).  Wildlife can be affected directly or indirectly by these actions (Ford and Flaspohler, 2010).

Recent studies comparing low- and high-development lakes in Vilas County, Wisconsin, documented declines in the flora and fauna on the more developed lakeshores. Species composition of breeding birds differed significantly (Lindsay et al., 2002), abundance of green frogs was substantially lower (Woodford and Meyer, 2003), and vegetation structure and composition in riparian and littoral zones were dramatically different (Elias and Meyer, 2003) along low- and high-residential development lakeshores.   Vilas County, which is within the Northern Highland Ecological Landscape (NHEL), encompasses a 2,636-km2 area along Wisconsin's northern border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This is an area of Wisconsin that is home to the third-largest concentration of freshwater glacial lakes on the planet.   Approximately 53 percent of the county is privately owned; the remainder is in county, state, and federal forests, or in tribal jurisdiction.

While archeological evidence shows Native American settlement of the NHEL lakes and rivers goes back several thousand years, only during the past 140 years have settlers of European origin been dominant. One of the largest timber operations in North America occurred in the NHEL 1880-1910, with over 3 billion board feet harvested and shipped to the growing Midwestern cities – primarily old-growth pine and hardwoods.  Once clear cut of timber, much of the land was abandoned by the timber interests, bought up by speculators or homesteaded, with the intent of converting the land to agriculture.   The short growing season and poor soils prevented a sustainable agricultural economy from developing, and the land reverted to early successional forestland, much of which today is cropped for lumber and paper products.  The abundant lakes proved a recreational draw from 1900 - present, tourists from Midwest cities traveled first by train, then auto, to fishing resorts which grew in scale, comfort, and size through the 1960s.  While many lake resorts remain, much of the lake shoreline has been divided into small parcels and developed for seasonal and year round housing.   Thus the recent history of most lakeshores in the NHEL has been conversion from virgin pine forests to clear-cut and slash, then the lakeshore remaining in private ownership (much abandoned land in the NHEL became part of state, county, and federal forest lands – and Lac du Flambeau tribal lands encompass many acres in the west) transitioned from farming or secondary forest to recreational and housing development.  The future NHEL land cover will likely reflect a patchwork of cropped forested lands and lakeshores that remain in public ownership along with dense settlement around lakeshores and river riparian zones (current zoning permits one residence per 100’ of lakeshore), with less dense residential development away from water features.

In the summer (July – August) of 2007, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), Michigan Technological University, Vilas County Land and Water Conservation Department (VCLWD), and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) launched a long-term (≥10 years) research project investigating the potential positive impacts of lakeshore restoration on riparian and littoral communities in Vilas County, Wisconsin. This restoration project requires participating property owners to plant native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants within a 35-ft (10.7 m) buffer zone along the lakeshore and to correct erosion problems. VCLWCD has funded private property lakeshore restoration projects since 2000 with a cost of $30,000 to $60,000 annually (C. Scholl 2006, VCLWD Conservationist, personal communication).   However, little or no evaluation of these past projects has occurred to identify the factors that affect the success of restoration.   Lakeshore restoration is a relatively new practice in northern Wisconsin and throughout North America. Prior evaluation of lakeshore restoration has focused on vegetationplanting techniques (Weiher et al.  2003)  but not on restoration of other attributes including ecological function and long-term plant survival and growth.   Quantifying these factors is the primary project goal of this project.

Literature Cited

Christensen, D. L., Herwig, B. R., Schindler, D. E, and Carpenter, S. R.  1996.  Impacts of lakeshore residential development on coarse woody debris in north temperate lakes.  Ecol. Appl. 6: 1143-1149.

Czech, B., Krausman, P. R., and Devers, P. K.  2000.  Economic associations among causes of species endangerment in the United States.  BioScience 50: 593-601.

Elias, J. E., and Meyer, M. W.  2003.  Comparisons of undeveloped and developed shorelands, northern Wisconsin, and recommendations for restoration.  Wetlands 23: 800-816.

Ford, M. and D. J. Flaspohler.  2010.  Scale-dependent response by breeding songbirds to residential development along Lake Superior.  Wilson J. Ornithol. 122: 296-306.

Gonzalez-Abraham, C. E., Radeloff, V. C., Hammer, R. B., Hawbaker, T. J., Stewart, S. I., and Clayton, M. K.  2007.  Building patterns and landscape fragmentation in northern Wisconsin, USA.  Landscape Ecol. 22: 217-230.

Lindsay, A. R., Gillum, S. S., and Meyer, M. W.  2002.  Influence of lakehore development on breeding bird communities in a mixed northern forest.  Biol. Conserv. 107:1-11.

Naiman, R. J.  1996.  Water, society, and landscape ecology.  Landscape Ecol. 11: 193-196.

Radeloff, V. C., Hammer, R. B., and Stewart, S. I.  2005.  Rural and suburban sprawl in the U.S. Midwest from 1940 to 2000 and it relation to forest fragmentation.  Conserv. Biol. 19: 793-805.

Riera, J., Voss, P. R., Carpenter, S. R., Kratz, T. K., Lillesand, T. M., Schnaiberg, J. A., Turner, M. G., and Wegener, M. W.  2001.  Nature, society and history in two contrasting landscapes in Wisconsin, USA: interactions between lakes and humans during the twentieth century.  Land Use Policy 18: 41-51.

Schnaiberg, J., Riera, J., Turner, M. G., and Voss, P. R.  2002.  Explaining human settlement patterns in a recreational lake district: Vilas County, Wisconsin, USA.  Environ. Manage. 30: 24-34.

Theobald, D. M, Miller, J. R., and Hobbs, N. T.  1997.  Estimating the cumulative effects of development on wildlife habitat.  Landscape Urban Plan. 39: 25-36.

Weiher, E., S. P. Poet, and K. Voss.  2003.  Experimental restoration of lake shoreland in western Wisconsin.  Ecological Restoration 21:186-190.

Wilcove, D. S., Rothstein, D., Bubow, J., Phillips, A., and Loso, E.  1998.  Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States.  Bioscience 48: 607-615.

Woodford, J. E., and Meyer, M. W.  2003.  Impact of lakeshore development on green frog abundance.  Biol. Conserv. 110: 277-284.

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