Sprawl Of The Wild
Barry Babcock is about to get mad. You can't see the coming torrent of complaints from his expression. At 57, Babcock has a friendly, warm manner. Anger does not seem to be one of his usual reflexes. He is an athletic-looking sort of guy, less in the mode of a fitness-center buff than of someone who has spent a lot of time paddling a canoe and tramping around the woods. Babcock recounts his big adventures--most recently, a harrowing near-drowning episode in the icy waters of Canada's Quetico--with the sort of zest that suggests a conviction that you haven't lived until you've nearly died.
Like a lot of back-to-the-woods types, Babcock has a life that's governed by the changing seasons. In the fall, he likes to bow-hunt deer on the wooded 80-acre property he owns in rural northern Hubbard County, located in the gut of north central Minnesota. Thanks to an outsized deer herd and liberal tag limits, Babcock can usually keep his freezer stocked with venison year-round. That's a good thing. A retired motel owner, he gets by these days on $500 a month.
So to the extent he's able, Babcock lives off the land. Sometimes he scours the nearby forests for chanterelles or morels or a host of other obscure but equally edible wild foods--the kinds that sustained the Indians in the old days. In the spring and summer, Babcock likes to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, usually by canoe. While he describes himself as a "half-assed naturalist," the truth is that he is encyclopedic when it comes to the flora, fauna, and history of the north woods. He puts it more modestly. "My avocations," he says with a shrug, "are deeply intertwined with the outdoors."
Babcock's one-room home, which he assembled from a garage kit, sits at the end of a long, winding dirt road. His nearest neighbor lives about a mile away. On this warm June morning, Babcock has just enjoyed a breakfast of stinging nettles. Despite the nasty-sounding name,stinging nettles, he informs me, are actually quite nutritious. You do need to be careful with the preparation.
Absent running water--no hose or irrigation system--Babcock waters his vegetable garden the old way: by hand. With a rambunctious and somewhat ill-behaved field spaniel whirling at his feet, he pumps five gallons of water into a plastic bucket and carries it back. At the center of Babcock's garden sits the most conspicuous sign of modernity in the vicinity: two enormous sets of solar panels. The panels supply all of Babcock's electrical needs, which are few. He has a phone line, a satellite dish, and a computer. Aside from those amenities, Babcock lives off the grid.
Ambling back to the shack, Babcock pokes around a bookshelf looking for his favorite volume, Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Leopold, who was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, is widely regarded as the father of game management and, by extension, the modern conservation movement. From a broken-down farm along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, Leopold meditated about all manner of things. The resilience of bur oaks in the face of prairie fires. The virtues of solitude. Man's complex relationship, and duty, to the wild. A keen observer of the natural world, Leopold (who died in 1948) remains a hero to people like Barry Babcock.
Babcock first read A Sand County Almanac when he was in his early 20s. It shaped his outlook on the natural world. So in 1970, when Babcock saw an 80-acre plot come up for sale for $3,000, he snapped it up. He makes no bones about the fact that his exposure to Leopold played a role in the decision. "I think The Sand County Almanac is one of the great philosophical works of the 20th century," he says. Babcock's Almanac is one of those battered books that you can tell has been read dozens of times, dappled as it is with pencil notes and asterisks and infatuation. "Leopold was the first one who connected all the dots, who really got what conservationists should be focused on," Babcock explains. "He was a real visionary."
The discussion of Leopold leads to the object of Babcock's great ire, the bane of his daily life: the incredible proliferation of all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs. Babcock resides in the heart of ATV country. A combination of lax regulation and inadequate enforcement on the state-owned lands that surround his property acts like a magnet for the four-wheeling set. In recent years, ATV manufacturers have enjoyed a fantastic surge in popularity in Hubbard County and the rest of the state. Between 1998 and 2004, according to the Department of Natural Resources, ATV registrations in Minnesota increased by a staggering 133 percent, from 98,000 to 224,000.
With their outsized tires, mighty torque, and capacity to travel across virtually any landscape, ATVs have become one of the ubiquitous features of the north woods. If you drive the Minnesota countryside much, you've seen the most obvious evidence: endless parallel lines of dirt that scar the ditches along every trunk highway from Winona to Koochiching County. But unless you frequent the deep forests, you probably haven't seen the real effects of the ATV boom. In places like Hubbard County, rogue riding has become a virtual epidemic. It has hit the area fast and hard--like meth for the gear-head set.
"A lot of people, even a lot of environmentalists, don't realize the grave dangers presented by ATVs," Babcock ventures. "To me, there isn't anything more egregious. Yet the DNR acts like agents for Polaris and Arctic Cat. And the politicians are even worse." Polaris and Arctic Cat are Minnesota companies, he notes, and both have enjoyed the ample hospitality of the Pawlenty administration.
In his agitation, Babcock gestures past his outhouse toward some deep woods. For most of the past decade, he says, wolves denned on a hillside about a mile away. At night, he would stand in the clearing outside his house and listen to the deep, throaty howls of the beasts, unmistakably distinct from the more timorous yowling of coyotes. In spring, Babcock says, he sometimes even heard the yapping of wolf pups. That was one of the pleasures of his life. A few years back, though, a deer hunter with an ATV blazed a trail to a spot just 20 yards or so from the den site. Under a law designed to encourage deer harvest, hunters are permitted to ride off marked trails. Soon, Babcock says, other riders--not hunters, just pleasure cruisers--were frequenting the new trail. This spring, for the first time in a decade, Babcock never heard the wolves.
Since the late '90s, Babcock has been one of the more active agitators in the fight over ATV use on public lands. A founding member of an organization called the Jack Pine Coalition, Babcock has pressed his case with lawmakers, environmentalists, the DNR, and anyone else who will listen. He reels off the details of the bureaucratic battles like a war-hardened veteran. And in some senses, he is. In November of 2002, in the midst of an especially pitched ATV debate, Babcock invited Matt Norton, a fellow environmental activist, to go deer hunting with him. Because it was snowy, Norton parked his Honda Civic at the end of Babcock's long unplowed driveway. The next morning, Norton and Babcock awoke to a loud boom, whereupon they discovered that Norton's vehicle had been fire-bombed. Despite an investigation by the Hubbard County sheriff, no one was ever implicated in the attack. But both Babcock and Norton had their suspicions, and those suspicions were centered on the hostility their activism engendered.
Babcock is careful to emphasize that he is not opposed to all use of ATVs, even on public lands. But, he argues, responsible use of the ATV is more exception than rule. As he pilots his Toyota pickup truck through the nearby logging roads of the Paul Bunyan State Forest, he stops occasionally to point out the carnage. Although riders are supposed to remain on legally designated trails, rogue trails have proliferated in the forest, and many of the hillsides bear the mark. It looks as if Paul Bunyan himself had swaggered through the woods pole-axing the earth.
Straddling the depths of an ATV-created ditch, Babcock is plainly indignant. It's not simply the insult to the landscape that galls him. It's the rank triumph of commerce over the protection of public resources. "You live in this country and somehow it's your constitutional right to go anywhere you want with your two-stroke engine," Babcock says, with a wave of disgust. "There are a lot of people--a lot of people--who view these lands as their personal playgrounds."
About 50 miles away, at Itasca State Park, the spectacle is more dismal. Itasca, Minnesota's oldest state park, is best known as the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is a place of ecological, historic, and, to some, great spiritual significance. And it is quite beautiful. In the uppermost reaches, the river is narrow and winding, with gin-clear water snaking through woodland and swamp. There is practically no development along the 45-mile corridor that runs from the rocky headwaters at Lake Itasca to Lake Bemidji. Outside the Boundary Waters, and perhaps the great bogs north of Red Lake, the Mississippi headwaters are among the wildest-seeming places in the state. That is one of the reasons Babcock has long been so fond of paddling there. It is one of those spots where, when the sun reaches the right angle and the breeze blows just right, the whole world seems to recede.
But in recent years, ATV riders have found the challenge of crossing the little stream irresistible. Though it is illegal to drive through waterways and wetlands, the practice remains common. Some ATVs are modified with "snorkels," illegal exhaust-system modifications that let them run through deep water. Recently, riders equipped with such snorkels have been barreling across the headwaters of the Mississippi. At one canoe stop, Coffee Pot Landing, the DNR seems to have recognized the problem. They blocked access to a bridge crossing with several large boulders in an effort to limit such transgressions. As Babcock tromps along the river's edge, he points to a newly blazed trail just upstream from the bridge. Fat tire tracks lead directly to the river. On the other side, the tracks then emerge, flattening the tall grasses. Further down the road, you can see where the ATV driver entered the shallows of the river once again, probably to wash his vehicle clean of mud.
Such behavior is hardly a secret. To Babcock, this is the most dismaying aspect of the political scrum over ATVs: ATV carnage has been well documented. Newspapers have written stories about the problem. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle--Roseville DFLer John Marty and Breezy Point Republican Carrie Ruud--have inveighed mightily against it. DNR game wardens, the people most responsible for enforcing off-highway vehicle regulations, have written eloquent and damning public statements about the scourge. Indeed, some game wardens have testified that ATV enforcement is the most time-consuming aspect of their job. With game warden staffing levels approximately equal to what they were during World War II, enforcement is a Sisyphean nightmare.
In a 2003 letter to a legislator, Bob Leuth, a now-retired conservation officer who patrolled the Paul Bunyan State Forest, characterized the problem in the bluntest terms. In his letter, Leuth not only vented his personal irritation; he did all he could to dispel the rote industry line against criticism about rogue riders:
"They [ATVs] are turning a fair amount of Minn. into a scene that looks like Hell.... One of the statements that bugs me to no end is always, "Well, it's only a small percentage of the machines causing the problems, 95 percent of the operators are well behaved and very conscientious." Even uninformed people within the DNR make those statements. That just plain isn't true. I've never kept exact figures but a 75 percent irresponsible versus 25 percent responsible riders is a much closer figure. The "average" rider I check is 16 to 30 years old. Many, many of them are wearing rain suits and their machines are all wet and covered with mud and aquatic vegetation. There is something about mud and wetlands that these ATV operators just can't seem to stay out of. I've had numerous beautiful, cattail-filled wetlands in just my area churned into a black bowl of mud soup. After they get done churning in there, you can't see a piece of green vegetation, everything is mud and black. That wetland has just lost its ability to filter and purify the water that passes thru it. It's an environmental felony what these machines and ruthless operators are doing to this state."
In Babcock's view, the failure to rein in the problem reflects a fundamental failure of the political system. Landowners, environmentalists, and even many sportsmen recognize the need for meaningful restrictions on ATV use. But as conservation officers report on a weekly basis, the damage persists largely unchecked. "If we can't take care of this problem, we can't take care of any problems," Babcock sighs. The "problem," he adds, is more than mere damage to public lands by the four-wheelers, mudder trucks, and dirt bikes. "This issue is just the tip of the spear," he says. In his ire, Babcock has coined a phrase for the rest of the larger phenomenon. Northern Minnesota, he offers, has fallen into the grip of "the recreational-industrial complex." If you've spent much time in the north woods--if you've hiked trails pounded by the riders--that characterization can sound like an understatement.
For generations, the summer retreat to the lake has been a hallowed rite of Minnesota life. It is one of the things that we flyover-land folk believe sets us apart from the congested wastelands that dominate the continent. Minnesota exceptionalism has been rhapsodized, romanticized, and glorified by everyone from Garrison Keillor to Sigurd Olson. In 1973, Time magazine, the ultimate arbiter of conventional American thought, proclaimed "The Good Life in Minnesota" on its cover. The cover photograph depicted Minnesotans as we would like to see ourselves. Then-governor Wendell Anderson hoisted a fat northern pike on a stinger, wearing the sort of smile that suggests anyone outside the frame of this picture is a damn fool. Anderson--boyish and fit, so un-politicianlike in appearance--seemed to serve as exhibit one in the virtues and advantages of the Minnesota life. And the cabin--even if it wasn't in the picture, any true Minnesotan knew that was the real center of the picture.
The idea of the unspoiled north is anodyne to the dismal realities of the modern metropolis, with its shams, filth, and commerce. The great north is the emblematic image on the back of our newly minted state quarter. In the foreground, the quarter depicts the state bird--the loon--and, behind that, a modest little fishing boat with a pair of happy-looking anglers. In the background, a pristine lake. The waters are framed by a stand of stately evergreens. We are attracted to this particular image for a simple reason: The north woods, conceived thus, are the opposite of the places where most of us live. As metro folk, we are up to our loins in strip malls, subdivisions, and traffic jams. On the worst days--on most days, really--those snarls stretch from Lakeville to Coon Rapids and, given the choice and the appropriate quantity of rope, a lot of motorists would probably hang themselves.
In the interest of accuracy--sham mitigation, say--a new design for the Minnesota quarter design is in order. To begin with, the lake depicted ought to be somewhat more crowded. Scratch that--a lot more crowded. In just two decades, the number of registered watercraft in Minnesota has leapt from 580,000 to 854,000. As to the fleet: That modest 14-foot vessel etched in your memories and on the back of the quarter has vanished. At any of the larger lakes in Minnesota, you will be lucky to see a boat that could be purchased for under $10,000. Simplicity is a virtue we celebrate in Minnesota, but, like celibacy, one we seldom practice.
Finally, there is the matter of those evergreens in the background of the quarter. The evergreen--especially the state tree, the red pine--is a stately, lovely thing. But the red pine is also essentially an artifact, its natural recruitment crippled as a consequence of forestry practices, game management, and ill-conceived fire-suppression policies. If we were sticklers for accuracy, then, we would showcase the aspen on the back of the quarter. Fast-growing, especially in its hybrid form, the aspen is Minnesota's most commercially viable tree, and one of the most commonly cultivated trees of the north woods. The proliferation has benefited both the paper companies and, by happy coincidence for the ungulates, the white-tailed deer. It is not much of a symbol of the wild, though.
The heart of the Minnesota lake country and of the north woods lies mainly within five counties, collectively referred to as the central lakes district: Itasca, Hubbard, Aitkin, Cass, and Crow Wing. Between them, these five counties boast more than a fifth of the state's lakes. They are the sorts of lakes that have historically offered some of the best fishing and swimming. Their natural attractiveness, along with their relative proximity to population centers of the metro, has made them a favorite destination for generations. But their grip on the public has never been so strong as it is today. As the Star Tribune reported a few weeks ago, Friday traffic levels on northbound Interstate 94 (the prime route to the lakes district) have doubled in the course of the last decade. This is a trend that shows no sign of abating.
It is not just the weekend warriors with their RVs, ATVs, and powerboats in tow who are laying siege to the north woods. Between a glut of retiring baby boomers and growing ranks of telecommuters no longer chained to the cubicles, the year-round populations in some parts of the north woods are growing at twice the state average. The resulting transformation has been nothing short of astonishing.
Nowhere are the effects of this particular boom more evident than on the stretch of Highway 371 that runs through the formerly sleepy hamlet of Baxter, Minnesota. Located just west of Brainerd, Baxter owes much of its recent transformation to a highway rerouting project. In the late '90s, the Minnesota Department of Transportation constructed a new stretch of Highway 371 that created a bypass allowing northbound motorists to skip the 20-minute drive through downtown Brainerd. But the new road did more than speed commutes to the lake; it created a boon for commercial developers. Once home to local bait shops, gift stores, and assorted "up north" shops, the Baxter strip was a totem of sorts. To lake-bound travelers, arriving in Baxter meant that you had reached the north woods.
Now Baxter represents something entirely different: not your arrival to the wilderness, but suburbia's arrival to the wilderness. There are few marks to differentiate Baxter's 371 from the commercial frontage roads that line the interstates of Bloomington, Woodbury, or Minnetonka. The development is a monument to the modern face of big-box American commerce. Arriving from the south, the first major retailer a traveler encounters is a newly opened, 207,000 square foot Wal-Mart Superstore.
This is not Baxter's first Wal-Mart. The world's largest corporation used to run another shop a mile and a half up the road. That behemoth was shuttered last year to make way for its big brother, and for Cabela's, a specialty superstore that operates under the principle that no sportsmen can enjoy the outdoors without a high-limit credit card.
The new Baxter Wal-Mart sits on a vast sea of asphalt, the anchor of a planned 34-acre commercial development called the Central Lakes Crossing. Two years ago, when the Baxter City Council was deliberating the proposal, anti-sprawl activists requested that the city demand a detailed review called an "environmental impact statement." The rationale for the petition was twofold. One, there was the matter of the project's proximity to Perch Lake, Baxter's largest body of water. Two, petitioners worried that an adjacent wetland would be affected. In the end, the City Council rejected the appeal, settling for a less rigorous review called an "environmental assessment worksheet." The rationale? The wetlands in question did not lie on the 23-acre plot to be occupied by Wal-Mart. Wetland impacts caused by subsequent development on the remaining 11 acres, the council reasoned, could be taken up as separate matters in the future.
The new Wal-Mart constitutes the biggest and most dramatic change to the Baxter landscape in recent years. There have been plenty of others. From 1950 until a couple of years ago, a corner lot a mile or so north of the new Wal-Mart was occupied by Baxter's best-known landmark, the Paul Bunyan Amusement Center. The park's most conspicuous feature was the 26-foot-high statute of the mythic lumberjack. Then there were the giant blue ox, the carnival rides, even helicopter rentals. It was kitschy. It was also fundamentally and irrefutably regional. It spoke to the distinctive character of the place. By 2003, as the commercial property values in Baxter continued to skyrocket, the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park ceased to be financially viable at its current location. A Kohl's department store now occupies the spot.
For the next mile and a half, Highway 371 is a bonanza of national chain eateries and retailers. Stores have sprung from the roadside like Mississippi kudzu. Best Buy, Taco Bell, Target, Applebee's, Tires Plus, Slumberland, Gander Mountain, Cub, a brand-new Holiday Inn Express with a garishly advertised water park, and even a Green Mill restaurant. The latter is located at a place called the North Pointe Shopping Center; an extraneous "e" here or there is one of the favored pretensions of the new north woods marketers.
At the northern reach of this colossal commercial monoculture sits its most astonishing-looking feature. A few years back, when this thing was still under construction and not clearly identifiable, I drove by the sprawling, 12-acre site quite regularly and could never tell what was going in there. For a spell, I thought that perhaps Baxter had been selected as a plant site for some mammoth defense contractor; maybe the Carlyle Group was planning to build a Bradley tank facility there. I was wrong, though. Baxter instead had become home to Minnesota's largest Ford dealership.
Among land planners in neighboring counties, the speed and extent of Baxter's transformation has given rise to a new phrase, one typically uttered with a mixture of gallows humor and outright repulsion: Baxterization. It refers to the proliferation of new-style commercial districts on the highways of the north woods, a proliferation that has strangled many a fading downtown.
Crow Wing County represents both the present and future face of northern Minnesota. Its location, just two and a half hours north of the Twin Cities, has long made it one of the state's most favored summer haunts. But in the late 1980s, the county began to experience an unusual rate of change. A wave of affluent retirees and newly rich began buying land at unprecedented rates--and unprecedented prices. Often the old summer cabins that had dotted the land were razed. In their place came the year-round lake homes, many of them built to standards of size and luxury previously unseen in the north country.
By the 1990s, Crow Wing had become one of the fastest-growing non-metro counties in the state, recording a 25 percent increase in population. In the first four years of the new century, the population leapt by another 7.8 percent. Projections indicate that the next three decades will see Crow Wing County, now home to about 58,000 people, reach a population of 100,000.
All this growth is occurring is spite of the fact that there is virtually no prime lakeshore left to develop. So where are the new houses going? Some, especially those built for middle- and working-class people, are located on former agricultural lands, where prices remain more affordable. For others who can't afford lakeshore, there is a new niche: the second- and third-tier lakefront home. You may not have a dock or a boat, but you still have a view.
In his 1927 essay, "The Libido for the Ugly," H.L. Mencken wrote of a train ride through western Pennsylvania in which he found himself gripped by the homeliness of the passing countryside:
"What I allude to is the unbroken and agonizing ugliness, the sheer revolting monstrousness, of every house in sight. From East Liberty to Greensburg, a distance of twenty-five miles, there was not one in sight from the train that did not insult and lacerate the eye. Some were so bad, and they were among the most pretentious--churches, stores, warehouses, and the like--that they were downright startling; one blinked before them as one blinks before a man with his face shot away.... Here was wealth beyond computation, almost beyond imagination--and here were human habitations so abominable that they would have disgraced a race of alley cats."
Hyperbole, of course, was Mencken's stock-in-trade. That said, a visitor to northern Minnesota--transported by time machine from 1970 to 2005--might very well find himself in agreement with the masterful curmudgeon. It is not just the Baxters that elicit such harsh assessments. It is the lakes themselves. The shorelines are now crowded by docks and shore stations. Cruisers and cigarette boats suited to the Great Lakes routinely cruise 600-acre waters. And, by and large, the new generation of "cabins" would blend seamlessly into most neighborhoods in Burnsville.
Lying immediately north of Crow Wing, Cass County is home to some of the largest bodies of water in the state, including Cass, Winnibigoshish, and Leech Lakes. It is, and has long been, quintessential cabin/resort country. But change is coming fast. As development in Crow Wing County approaches maximum capacity, Cass has become the new ground zero. Increasingly, cabins and resorts are vanishing, giving way to luxury lake homes and PUDs, or planned unit developments.
John Sumption, Cass County's director of environmental services, grew up in Cass County. Sumption compares the current land rush in Cass County to what happened in Crow Wing 15 years ago. The economic benefits of the growth, he notes, have been decidedly mixed. If you are in construction, it has been a boon indeed. If you run a gift store or resort--in other words, if you depend on tourists who come bearing fresh wallets all summer long--you are out of luck. The effects have been dramatic. "When I was a kid, there were 116 resorts on Leech Lake," Sumption says. "I think there are about 26 left. The property has become so valuable in this new economy. The resorts simply can't afford to stay open."
For the most part, dying resorts have been sold to developers for subdivisions. The prices for prime lots are jaw-dropping. At a new development on Leech Lake called Forest Royale--that extraneous "e" again--the top-priced lots are listed at $850,000. For that sum, you get approximately three acres of former resort land, a lovely grass lawn, a private harbor, and 200 feet of "sugar sand" water frontage. But Forest Royale does offer another amenity, one that is a harbinger of another north woods trend. It is a gated community. It makes sense. Cass County is among the poorest counties in the state, with 13 percent of its inhabitants living below the poverty line. What better way to keep out the rabble?
Just as in Crow Wing County, the new "cabins" of Cass County don't fit the usual understanding of the word. "We don't even know what a cabin is anymore, at least nothing that resembles the traditional idea," Sumption observes. "The storage buildings that people put their lawn mowers in are twice the size of the cabins that were here when I was a kid." Of course, it is true that the old shack/outhouse model of the north woods retreat has not quite gone extinct; it's more like the panda, a species that survives in shrinking numbers and which appears to be incapable of producing future generations. Gigantism, on the other hand, has no trouble replicating itself. The numbers are staggering. On Ten Mile Lake, one "cabin" currently under construction boasts an 18,000-square-foot floor plan. Over the past five years, there have been three 12,000-plus-square-foot homes constructed on nearby Woman Lake.
In 2002, a Business Week article listed Leech Lake as one of the nation's five fastest-appreciating vacation home markets, with valuations jumping 10 percent over a one-year period. "It's really unprecedented," says Sumption, who, like many natives, has long wondered when and if the bubble will burst. Lately, he has become increasingly convinced that it won't--at least not anytime soon. In part, the boom in the second-home market is a pure product of demographics, as growing legions of retiring baby boomers look to escape to the country. Sumption harbors other theories, too. When the tech market bubble burst in the late '90s, he notes, a lot of investors took their money and put it in real estate. In the Cass County town of Longville, which has a year-round population of 125, real estate is the only game in town. "It's pretty incredible," Sumption says. "We have three closing companies, two banks, three attorneys, and 70 licensed realtors."
The economic and aesthetic effects of the building boom in the central lakes district are plain to see. Less obvious are the environmental effects. Henry Van Offelen, a fisheries researcher based in Detroit Lakes who works for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, worries that the current pace of shoreline development is starting to cause significant ecological harm. It's not just the volume of development, he says, it's where the development is occurring. In recent years, most of the prime shoreline--the stretches with stable, sandy beaches of the sort that best withstand the pressures associated with development--has already been built on. Consequently, there has been a surge in the development of what are generally referred to as "marginal shorelands."
Typically, marginal shorelands are low-lying swampy areas, the sorts of waterfront long avoided by vacationers who wanted beaches and lawns and clear water. From an ecological perspective, such shorelands and the associated waters function as nature's nursery. They are vital to the reproductive success of all manner of plants, fish, and waterfowl. As new homeowners look to recreate the "classic" lakefront look, they often tear out weeds and other emergent vegetation. They fill wetlands. They apply fertilizers and pesticides to cultivate lawns. As the threat posed by such practices has become more manifest in recent years, several large-scale planned unit developments--or PUDs--have been challenged in court by groups such as the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and various lakes associations.
But given the intense market forces at work, few people familiar with the issues express much optimism. John Steward, a DNR employee and longtime project coordinator for the Leech Lake Watershed Project, grew up in Wright County in southern Minnesota. In his childhood, he says, the nearby lakes were relatively clear and clean. As the metropolitan area sprawled to the west, the waters grew murkier and less healthy. Now, Steward sees the same phenomenon playing out in the Leech Lake area. It's not strictly a matter of shoreline development, either. With more affluent people moving to the region in large numbers, Steward says, townships face increased pressure to improve amenities. People don't like to drive expensive new cars on gravel roads and, after a nick on the finish, tend to demand more blacktop. "I think we are loving this area to death," Steward ventures. "If we don't change our management and balance our growth, this will become a very different sort of place very soon."
The sad truth is that it's already a very different place. Strictly from an ecological perspective, the rampant development of the shorelines in Minnesota has eliminated vast amounts of the cattails, bulrushes, and other emergent plants that form a vital link in the chain of aquatic life. According to the DNR publication The Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, developed shorelines typically have less than half the aquatic vegetation found in undeveloped shorelines.
In the past few decades, a vast commercial and residential monoculture has consumed much of the American landscape. Minnesota, which has long prided itself on a distinctive regional identity, is hardly immune to the headlong rush toward synergy and sameness. The old prewar cabins, and even the cabins built in the successive generations, reflected much of what we consider the best and most fundamental aspects of the Minnesota character. They were the products of a culture that celebrated sturdiness, the do-it-yourself ethos, a certain measure of modesty. In the architecture of the classic cabins, you see practicality. You see little idiosyncratic flourishes applied by a succession of competent and not-so-competent owners. With few exceptions, the curse of the American social character that the acerbic Minnesota intellectual Thorsten Veblen termed "conspicuous consumption" was blessedly absent from north woods landscapes.
It is a different story today. The skyrocketing cost of waterfront property has been accompanied by a profound shift of culture, of architecture, and, notably, of class. There are still people of limited means, teachers and cops and bar managers, who own modest little cabins sprinkled about the state. But by and large, they are a vestige now, relics of a less super-heated age that are disappearing from the landscape just as surely as pine trees and six-cabin resorts and hot summer days on lakes where the call of loons was more common than the roar of jet-skis.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, I visited a large lake in the Chippewa National Forest. It is a spot I know well--a pretty but otherwise unremarkable stretch of beach. The spectacle that day was astonishing. A flotilla of pontoons, speedboats, and other assorted craft stretched down the shoreline a half-mile. The people--pink from the sun, clutching cozies, wallowing hip-deep in the lukewarm water--were packed in like Vienna sausages. Everyone looked perfectly happy to be clustered thus, their boats aligned like cars in a shopping mall parking lot. I could only wonder: Where have all the misanthropes gone?
It is not that there is no beauty left in the north woods. There is. You can still cruise Minnesota's blue highways and discover the old ma-and-pa resort at the end of a gravel road, or the little tavern with the tattered-looking stuffed muskie on the wall, or the amateur sculptor's energetic rendering of Paul Bunyan. But such discoveries are bittersweet these days, like finding arrowheads or any other token of a vanished time. In a sense it's just the brute force of the marketplace talking, squeezing all but the most affluent from the state's loveliest and suddenly most desirable quarters.
But it is also the product of something else, something in us that seeks to remake any new thing we encounter in a more familiar form. It is true of the city, of the suburb, and of the countryside. Most of us, truth be told, don't seem to care for the dark of night. Go to your favorite lake, and you will see the glow of halogen lights emanating from nearly every dwelling. The stars of the night sky grow more pale every year. Minnesota cabin culture has not taken its final breath, but it's thrashing in its last throes. The lake country grows more crowded each year as it is hurtles toward its seeming destiny as the Hamptons of the upper Midwest.
Roads of Ruin
For Barry Babcock, things are different these days. In his neck of the woods, holiday weekends bring hordes of ATV riders. A lot of the riders, he notes, come from the state's leading hotbed of ATV registrations, Hennepin and Anoka counties. As he drives the bucolic roads that lead from the Mississippi headwaters to his home, he points out various bars. Sometimes, he complains about the quality of the cuisine. "Problem is," he says, "a lot of these guys who buy these places quickly figure out there is more money to be made from selling whiskey than food." But the bars and restaurants that really get to him are the ones that cater to the ATV crowd. Such establishments make his private blacklist.
Not long after I spent my afternoon at the headwaters with Babcock, I received an irate e-mail. He sent it in the wake of one of the lesser-known failures of the 2005 Minnesota Legislature, which will mainly be remembered as the Legislature of the Partial Government Shutdown. It was a terrible year for the environment. As a percentage of the budget, the state will spend less on conservation than in any year in the past three decades. The failures went beyond allocation of resources. A few years ago, a coalition of conservative and liberal lawmakers had come to agreement on how best to regulate ATVs. The compromise: On state lands, riders would be confined to designated trails. To Babcock, it was a half-baked deal, but better than the virtually unregulated atmosphere that preceded it.
Then came the dirty deal at the end of the 2005 session. On state forest land whose boundaries lie north of Highway 2, ATVs would now be allowed to traverse any trail not posted with an explicit prohibition. Babcock saw the rule change for what it was: a poison pill provision. Because about two-thirds of the state-owned land lies north of Highway 2, the DNR, as a practical matter, simply will not be able to post "no motorized vehicle travel" on every vulnerable stretch of forest. The rule change was a victory for the ATV industry, for ATV enthusiasts.
But as Babcock sees it--and as a vast cohort of environmentalists and plenty of regular folk sickened by the carnage see it too--the bad old free-for-all days are back. The land Babcock so loves will be subjected to more insults. He worries especially about the effects on ground-nesting birds--grouse, ovenbirds, the warblers. He laments the inevitable loss of one of the deep forest's great gifts: silence.
The new rule also signaled something else. The deal was forged with the full participation of DFL leadership, a party Babcock always supported. "I am so disgusted by these bunch of wimps that I do not think I can support this party again," Babcock wrote. Of course, it is not just disgust at the DFL that grips Babcock and fellow lovers of the way things used to be. It is the direction of the new Minnesota, the new north woods. The trajectory is defined by a single word: loss.
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