Let the Sun Shine In: Keeping Up Our Cultural Landscapes

If you’re a home owner, you know the joys and sorrows of keeping up a yard: mowing, pruning, weeding flower beds, removing dead trees before they fall on something expensive, thinning out crowded trees, and cutting brush. Now imagine that your yard is on a far off Lake Superior island. You sure can’t get the neighbor kid to mow it for ten bucks.

This is part of the challenge for keeping up historic landscapes at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The lighthouse stations, just six of the many historic properties maintained by the park, total over 23 acres of grounds. That’s grass that needs mowing, and adjoining woodlots and brushy edges that need periodic cutting, thinning and hazard tree control. The historic light station grounds are forest openings that provided lawns, gardens, orchards, livestock grazing, and most importantly, the cleared areas that allowed the light towers to be visible from approaching ships. These clearings are what park managers call “cultural landscapes”… historic grounds created by people for various purposes. Preserving these landscapes helps preserve the historic function, look, and feel of our light stations.

But as anyone who has ever tried keeping up an old property can tell you, it’s not an easy job. Even with modern tools such as chainsaws, mowers, and rotary-head brush cutters, these landscapes demand a lot of time and attention. Park maintenance staff and volunteers handle the routine mowing and trimming, which is part of the weekly duties of the volunteer light station keepers. Over time, however, the edges of the mowed areas have been re-populated by woody vegetation and trees, and the light station grounds have grown smaller and smaller. Today, a visitor might see only half or a quarter of the original historic station grounds.

As part of the major light station rehabilitation project (see cover story), the National Park Service conducted a study of each light station, called a “historic structures and cultural landscapes report” (see the full reports at https://www.nps.gov/apis/parkmgmt/hlrclr.htm). This provided a detailed history of each structure and landscape feature; down to the level of individual walkways, flowerbeds, and fruit trees; with recommendations on management for each feature.

The reports provide a vision and a plan for each historic light station, as well as a pretty big “to-do” list. In 2012, local contractors began removing selected large trees covering the light station grounds at Michigan Island, helping to restore that landscape. Meanwhile, park staff is removing smaller quantities of trees and brush at Devils and La Pointe light stations. The work at Devils will also involve the use of the park firefighting team to burn off piles of brush.

Other than the contract work at Michigan Island, the rest of this work is unfunded. Managers are begging and borrowing staff, youth crews, volunteers, and equipment to get the job done. We’re applying for NPS project funds whenever we can. Meanwhile, a “pick up” team of park staff, with personnel from every division, have managed to do thinning and brush clearing work on over 6 acres of grounds at Devils and La Pointe stations, as well as at the historic Hansen Farm on Sand Island. Future landscape work at Raspberry, La Pointe, Sand, and Outer lights is also anticipated. The Friends of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore have generously pitched in, contributing a new heavy-duty brush saw for the effort. Thank you Friends!

The results should be dramatic. Visitors will be able to see the light station grounds much more as they appeared fifty to one hundred years ago. Special touches will be provided at Michigan Island light where historic flowerbeds and an apple orchard will be partially restored. The restored landscapes (especially at La Pointe and Michigan lights, and Hansen Farm) will also improve sunlight and airflow around the historic buildings, reducing moisture in the structures. Boaters will also be better able to appreciate the light stations too. The lights will be more visible from the lake, as they were historically designed to be.

This article appears in the 2013 Apostle Islands National Lakeshore newspaper: Around the Archipelago

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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