Voyageurs National Park Case Study

Nearly 200 years ago voyageurs paddled birch bark canoes full of animal pelts and trade goods through this area on their way to Lake Athabasca, Canada.

View the text version of the Voyageurs National Park Case Study.

Voyageurs National Park Case Study

Nearly 200 years ago voyageurs paddled birch bark canoes full of animal pelts and trade goods through this area on their way to Lake Athabasca, Canada.

Today, people explore the park by houseboat, motorboat, canoe, and kayak.

Voyageurs is a water-based park where you must leave your car and take to the water to fully experience the lakes, islands, and shorelines of the park.

View the multimedia version of the Voyageurs National Park Case Study. (Flash Required.)

Voyageurs National Park Case Study—Text Version

Slide 1

NARRATOR: Fire is one way nature maintains a landscape. Similar to hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, fire plays an influential role as an ecological force.

ONSCREEN: Without the culling, recycling, and regenerative contributions of fire, a dynamic ecosystem becomes stagnant, minimizing plant and animal diversity.

Slide 2

NARRATOR: In the early years of fire management, little was known about the beneficial role fire plays in ecosystem management. Policy dictated suppressing all fires as soon as detected.

ONSCREEN: In the 1950s, however, scientists began to think differently about fire and the role it plays on a landscape.

Slide 3

NARRATOR: Today, the National Park Service plans for the inevitable, promoting the use of fire as a land management tool, when ignited by prescription or naturally by lightning.

ONSCREEN: The National Park Service’s goal is to restore fire’s role as a dynamic and necessary natural process, rather than simply suppressing it.

Slide 4

NARRATOR: On July 5th, 2004, a lightning storm passed over Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Three days later, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources discovered a fire and alerted park personnel, who after evaluating the fire, decided to manage it as a “wildland fire use,” that is, allowing a fire ignited by lightning to burn in order to help maintain and manage the ecosystem of a park.

ONSCREEN: After a month, this fire, referred to as the “Section 33 Fire,” had burned 1,435 acres, including islands and areas between lakes, allowing nature to renew this area’s ecosystem.

Slide 5

NARRATOR: In Minnesota, which is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” water is plentiful. Of approximately 218,000 acres at the Voyageurs National Park, nearly 84,000 are covered by water.

ONSCREEN: But even in Minnesota’s boreal forest, of which 40% is covered by water, fires can and do occur, large fires occurring every 25-150 years.

Slide 6

NARRATOR: This landscape of expansive lakes and wetlands consists of four large lakes connected by narrows that include 500 islands with boreal forests.

ONSCREEN: In the northern areas, these boreal forests consist of spruce, pine, and fir.

Slide 7

NARRATOR: Established in 1975, Voyageurs National Park recounts and honors the histories of the fur trappers who traveled through this area as well as those who sought to make a living there through logging, mining, and commercial fishing.

ONSCREEN: Logging, however, depleted large stands of white pine in central Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, moving the lumber industry north into the area now designated as Voyageurs National Park.

Slide 8

NARRATOR: As a result of the extensive logging operations that occurred during and after the logging frenzy of the 1880s and 1890s, the park’s forests were significantly altered.

ONSCREEN: Overall, there are fewer stands of large mature trees, with less white and red pine making up the park’s forests.

Slide 9

NARRATOR: The last significant fire in this area occurred in 1936. Since 1989, 35 lightning fires have been detected in the park, with only 4, including the Section 33 Fire, meeting the criteria to need management as a wildland fire use.

ONSCREEN: In 2002, Voyageurs National Park updated their fire management plan to include wildland fire use within designated park areas.

Slide 10

NARRATOR: In July 2004, once park managers learned of the fire caused by the storm, they used the “Decision Criteria for Wildland Fire Use” found in the fire management plan to determine whether to allow the fire to burn naturally. This criteria list considers public and staff safety, weather conditions, and probability of meeting burn objectives.

ONSCREEN: Before permitting prescribed or wildland fire use, a fire management plan delineating the ecosystem’s needs, visitors' use, and staff and visitor safety must be set.

Slide 11

NARRATOR: Though natural fires are wanted for their ecological work, they cannot be managed until accumulated fuels in the forest are reduced. The fire manager’s goal is to restore ecological conditions so fire can safely return to the landscape. When fire cannot be used, most hazardous fuel reduction is accomplished with saws and manual removal.

ONSCREEN: The three main tools park staff use to reduce heavy fuels are prescribed fire, mechanical fuel reduction, and wildland fire use.

Slide 12

NARRATOR: For the Section 33 Fire, park managers decided to manage it as a “wildland fire use” incident because the weather was cool and wet, the fire covered only about a quarter of an acre, and its location was in a secluded part of the Kabetogama Peninsula that would not threaten life or property regardless of direction.

ONSCREEN: To manage the fire and project its progression, park personnel developed a detailed plan, known as a Wildland Fire Implementation Plan.

Slide 13

NARRATOR: Park personnel closely monitored the fire everyday, receiving added aerial reconnaissance assistance from the Superior National Forest to observe the fire’s behavior and map its growth.

ONSCREEN: After 2 days, wind blew the fire along a pine-covered ridge, the fire growing to 55 acres before 2 to 3 inches of rain fell that night.

Slide 14

NARRATOR: By July 21, the fire had crossed a drainage, and driven by strong west winds, had pushed toward Shoepack Lake, igniting smaller fires, or “spot fires,” across the lake.

ONSCREEN: Spot fires can occur when fire embers are carried by wind and ignite fuels sometimes more than a mile away from the main fire.

Slide 15

NARRATOR: As the weather dried fuels over the next few days, the fire continued to spread, creating new spot fires on the north shore of Shoepack Lake, until the fire became well established there.

ONSCREEN: Because soils in this area tend to be shallow, small vegetation and grasses dried quickly, helping the fire spread.

Slide 16

NARRATOR: By that weekend, weather and fire behavior forecasts indicated that the fire had the potential to move north toward the shore of Rainy Lake. As a precautionary measure, fire managers sent crews to install structure protection on twenty structures located on islands in Rainy Lake.

ONSCREEN: Voyageurs park staff determined they needed additional assistance to manage the fire and requested a Fire Use Management Team to assist.

Slide 17

NARRATOR: Fire Use Management Teams are specialized teams who are knowledgeable in fire behavior and are highly skilled in projecting potential fire growth and predicting the potential risk to the resource and communities.

ONSCREEN: On July 27, the Southwest Fire Use Management Team arrived to assist Voyageurs park staff manage the fire.

Slide 18

NARRATOR: The team developed a long-term implementation action plan that addressed the park’s needs and the surrounding communities' concerns. Through computer modeling, the team estimated the fire’s projected growth, size, and speed in order to help plan how the fire should be managed long term and how the fire was anticipated to act and react.

ONSCREEN: Expertise, computerized projections, and community risk assessments allowed land managers to make informed decisions about the fire.

Slide 19

NARRATOR: Frequently, fires are not extinguished without a natural “season-ending event,” such as a significant rainfall or snowstorm.

ONSCREEN: Computer modeling indicated that this fire would be extinguished by a season-ending event before it could reach structures in Rainy Lake or Kettle Falls.

Slide 20

NARRATOR: Thirty days after the Section 33 Fire first started, isolated hotspots could still be observed, but there was little growth. Rain, high humidity, little wind, and cold temperatures all worked to quell the fire.

ONSCREEN: By the time fire personnel determined the fire extinguished, it had burned less than 1% of the park’s 170,000 acres.

Slide 21

NARRATOR: The total cost of the Section 33 Fire was approximately $450,000, significantly less than what the cost of suppressing the fire would have been. Managing fire in this way works.

ONSCREEN: At the height of activity, 58 people worked on this fire in various roles.

Slide 22

NARRATOR: By the end of August 2004, new ferns and other plants sprouted in the burn areas. By the following spring, monitoring plots began to be studied to determine whether white pines would regenerate naturally.

ONSCREEN: The park’s forests are just now showing the real benefits of the fire.

Slide 23

NARRATOR: It will take years before all the benefits of the Section 33 Fire are realized, and likely another fire will burn in the same area in the next century, furthering the benefits to the ecosystem.

ONSCREEN: The benefits of wildland fire use include increased space and sunlight for seedlings, reduced fire hazard, improved soil nutrients and wildlife habitat, and reduced plant diseases.

NARRATOR: Russ Rivera