Surveying Species to Protect Spirit Mountain

Surveying Species to Protect Spirit Mountain

By (Duluth Chapter) Izaak Walton League

Spirit Mountain, which is situated on the hillside of West Duluth, is a special place containing 432 acres of a naturally-functioning forest ecosystem. This system includes extensive wetlands and a high-quality trout stream that flows directly into the St. Louis River.

Spirit Mountain is in danger from a proposed hotel and golf course project. This development would lead to increased traffic and the building of homes, condominiums, and businesses surrounding the golf course. Runoff from the golf course – potentially including pesticides and fertilizers-would go into two streams, Stewart Creek and Knowlton Creek, both of which flow directly into the St. Louis River, which is the largest tributary to Lake Superior. Stewart Creek is a “designated” trout stream and currently has a healthy population of naturally reproducing brook trout. The St. Louis River has been designated as an “Area of Concern” by the International Joint Commission.

The proposed golf course would be built on the West Duluth hillside in an existing hardwood forest, portions of which are 160-200 years old. If the hotel and golf course are built, this unique old-growth northern hardwood forest ecosystem will be irreparably altered. Fragmentation of the forest will change the habitat for animals, birds, and aquatic wildlife. Just one example is the loss of forest canopy as a result of construction of the golf course: the hydrology of the area would be altered so as to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the ground.

One method our group utilized to encourage protection was to determine if any threatened, rare, or endangered species grew on the mountain. The thinking was that, at a minimum, if rare species were discovered, the developers would be required to redesign the project to protect these resources and/or obtain permits from the DNR to disturb plants. In Spring 1998, a plant survey was conducted on the Mountain, focusing on three plant species listed as rare by the State of Minnesota. In the opinion of the researcher, the likelihood of discovering additional patches of these plants, plus additional species that are Minnesota-listed as endangered was probable under the right conditions, during different seasons.

An additional plant survey was proposed to search the site for other rare species. In July and August, 2001, eighty local volunteers searched for four rare plant species. Due to drier than expected weather conditions, they were unsuccessful in finding the specified protected rare species, but they were successful in once again locating previously-discovered rare species and new sites for other state-listed rare or endangered species.

In the end, this plant survey resulted in the discovery of four new locations of rare species on the proposed golf course site and two locations of endangered species near the site. Confirming the presence of the previously-discovered rare species is a testament to the viability and vitality of the Spirit Mountain ecosystem over time. The researcher continues to search for other species of concern to build a larger body of data and create a better understanding of the ecosystem. With the discovery of larger-than-usual vernal ponds during the 2001 survey, the researcher is continuing this spring (2002) to search for and document amphibians in the ponds. The discovery of two locations of endangered species near the proposed site also suggests greater-than-expected biodiversity in the area.

What do you consider the key to your success?

The volunteers experienced Spirit Mountain first-hand and were impressed with it. They spread the message about their experience. Combine that with the publicity surrounding the survey and there has been a gradual awakening of more people to the value-both scientific and aesthetic-of this threatened asset. As the issue plays out, more people are speaking out against the development.

How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?

· From a previously-created base of knowledge about the Spirit Mountain ecosystem, it was determined that there was still much to learn.

· GLAHNF funded a study.

· Volunteers were recruited.

· An interactive website was a tool to communicate with and schedule volunteers (see It provided complete information on the project and the process. Volunteers created colored handouts with pictures for use by volunteers.

· A media campaign included press releases, phone calls, and an on-site press conference.

· Equipment was gathered; an on-site training program established.

· Volunteers worked 6-7 hour shifts. Upon discovery, the GPS position of each plant was recorded.

What have the effects of this effort been on your organization’s work?

The plant survey confirms our commitment to the trout stream and old growth forest and has helped retain enthusiasm and energy for continuing the fight. More people are now aware of the Izaak Walton League, and our membership has grown.

How has the project affected your community?

It has brought more people together to protect Spirit Mountain. While energy must still be focused, people are also now looking beyond the golf course-how can the site be used and still preserve the ecosystem’s integrity while allowing the City to make money from its sale or taxes?

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

Using volunteers was a double-edged sword for the researcher. While more ground could be covered in a short period of time, training 80 people in that time took energy away from the actual search.

The media presence on the first day was also a distraction, although it increased public awareness and, later, volunteer participation. While not finding any of the species was a disappointment, finding the previously-discovered species made up for it. Also frustrating was having to counteract the negative PR spin regarding the survey put out into local media by the developers last fall.

How many people were involved?

Initially: Going back to 1998-one (the researcher)

Finally: 83 people, including the researcher and study organizers.

About 560 hours of volunteer time were put into the project.

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

Volunteers were recruited through a mailing to our Chapter, announcements posted on local list-serves, and through a bi-monthly newspaper column.

Volunteer and media efforts were organized, in cooperation with the Izaak Walton League (Duluth Chapter) by the Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education (EAGLE).

Well-written and well-timed press releases garnered wide media attention.

How was public education a component of your program?

A well-orchestrated media campaign received much coverage, which, in turn, educated the public about the purpose of the survey. Newspaper columns featuring survey info were written by the Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education. Our chapter website features complete survey information. The public is learning the value of the forest, the trout stream and the river, and the rich diversity of ecosystem.

What was the primary means of communication?

The website, listserv, postcards, and phone calls.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?

GLAHNF was the only source of funding – $2,800; 80 volunteers – 560 hours.

What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect/assist your efforts?

See answer to public education above. The Sierra Club sponsored an interpretive hike in the fall that received extensive media coverage. Many letters to the editor after that hike were against the golf course.

Other comments that you feel would be helpful to other grassroots organizations working on similar projects.

According to the researcher, a common error is to perceive that once an area is studied, we then have perfect knowledge of it. That is never true because nature is dynamic-not static-it is always changing. No one person can fully explore even a small area-there simply is not enough time to do it.
(Duluth Chapter) Izaak Walton League
Lynne Olson
P.O. Box 3463
Duluth, MN 55803

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