Wetland Restoration on the North Shore of Lake Superior

Wetland Restoration on the North Shore of Lake Superior

Historically, wetlands were spread across Minnesota, dotting the landscape. Minnesota, like other states, has lost a large portion of its original wetlands, and with them, the beauty, biodiversity and functions they provided. However, one of Minnesota’s most coveted and beautiful areas, the North Shore of Lake Superior, was never blessed with an abundance of wetlands. The landscape was never conducive to the formation of wetlands-due to a combination of bedrock topography, very thin topsoil and the effects of large waves from the lake.

Therefore, the wetlands that do exist along the Shore are especially significant and serve extremely important
functions. Wetlands have important functions in cleaning water as it moves through the hydrologic cycle, and
wetlands that exist close to Lake Superior would be especially valuable in this way. Groups in Minnesota are working to protect and restore the wetlands along Lake Superior before it is too late. Groups such as the Sugarloaf Interpretive Center Association, the North Shore Watershed Watch, Save Lake Superior Association, the Lake Superior Alliance, and Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation are defending wetlands, restoring them and trying to halt their destruction.

Recognizing the rarity of North Shore wetlands, the Sugarloaf Cove Interpretive Center is restoring a wetland on Lake Superior. The wetland was used as a pulpwood landing operation for Consolidated Papers in the past, and had been covered in gravel to make it suitable for trucks and buildings. After the landing was shut down, no wetland vegetation could grow because the area had been decimated, and no wetland characteristics were present.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to restore the area to its original functions. The project began in 1998, and was extensive. First, cores were drilled into the ground to determine whether or not a wetland existed in that region, and if so, what types of plants it supported. They found that the wetlands in the area were present, but were discontinuous and spattered across the landscape. It was concluded that the wetlands were probably a sedge-matt or shrub-carr wetland, surrounded by a dynamic forested upland. The forest was probably mostly conifers such as black spruce and balsam fir.

The next step was the excavation of the site. A half-acre area was excavated, down to a buried peat layer that was most
likely the level at which the wetlands existed. After excavation, native seeds and seedlings were planted at the site with the help of volunteers from across the state. Survival of the seedlings will depend on many factors, including moisture conditions, competition from other plants, and browsing by deer and rabbits. Nurturing of the young plants will continue for many years.

The emphasis and priority should be placed on protecting existing wetlands that are still serving their original functions, and across most of Minnesota, it is still possible to save at least some of them. However, in an area like the North Shore that is under extreme development pressure, there just aren’t a large number of naturally occurring wetlands. Did Sugarloaf successfully restore a wetland to its original function and value? It is doubtful that wetlands
restoration projects ever recover the wetlands value completely because so many immeasurable factors are involved in the creation of habitats and ecosystems. The debate is ongoing on whether or not restoration is a worthwhile endeavor, but along the North Shore of Lake Superior, where many of the few original wetlands have been lost to development, there may be no other option.

Sugarloaf is hoping to expand their restoration project into the identification, protection, and restoration of wetlands
along the North Shore. The efforts to restore Lake Superior’s wetlands will be an ongoing struggle between developers, citizens, grassroots groups and government agencies. With resources and cooperation between grassroots groups and citizens, hopefully the North Shore will be home to many wetlands in the future.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.