Sloey, William
Proposed State Forest ATV Trail Threatens Rare Old-Growth Forest
Vilas County News-Review On-Line Letters to the Editor, May 29, 2007
Vilas County News-Review
Eagle River
Original Date

Dr. William E. Sloey is Emeritus professor of biology at UW-Oshkosh and principal author of the E.M. Griffith Forest Restoration and Recreation Area Proposal. He is a property owner and seasonal resident of Star Lake, Wisconsin. This document is part of "Selected Documents Reflecting Opposition to Proposed ATV Trails in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest," 2007, collected and distributed electronically by Northwoods Citizens for Responsible Stewardship.

  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake
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Proposed State Forest ATV Trail Threatens Rare Old-growth Forest

By Bill Sloey, Posted May 29, 2007

Wisconsin currently has some 90 species of exotic plants invading our forests and additional species invading our wetlands and precious lakes. These invaders can be transported about by many sources, including automobiles, boats and even wildlife.

By far, the most effective vector of seeds, plant part and pollen, however, are off-road vehicles with large, knobby tires that pick up dirt and plant materials in one place and shed them in another. In this limited space, I will highlight just two of the more notorious exotic invader species.

Purple loosestrife is known by most outdoors people in Wisconsin because it is so visible and is spreading so rapidly across wetlands of the state. Any off-roader who has ever forded a stream or even crossed a drainage ditch has likely translocated purple loosestrife seeds. The proposed all-terrain vehicle (ATV) trail will cross many streams and wetlands! The spread of purple loosestrife will certainly be accelerated!

Garlic mustard generally grows on good soils in mesic (middle moisture) forests and is very shade-tolerant. It also has very sticky seeds. There are several places where garlic mustard will certainly spread to and have an impact on the Northern Highland-American Legion (NHAL) State Forest. Every mature and old-growth stand of forest is vulnerable.

By far, the most vulnerable site, however, will be in the mature and old-growth forest north of Sayner, in what is called the Star Lake Crescent Macrosite (fig. 6 in the Department of Natural Resources’ Biotic Inventory Report). This stand of mature and old-growth sugar maple/hemlock/yellow birch with supercanopy white pine is growing on Lake Laura silt-loams.

The community forms a continuous closed canopy/open understory forest from Wharton Lake Road north all the way to Alva Lake and will contain three state natural areas. Many of the trees are more than 250 years old and this is one of the few places in Wisconsin where hemlock is successfully reproducing. At least 13 rare and threatened species have been found here. Unfortunately, it is also ideal habitat for garlic mustard.

If the ATV trail passes through or near these stands, it will be only a short time before garlic mustard replaces the native wood ferns, club-mosses, Canada mayflower, wood anemone, Indian pipe, large round-leafed orchid, and rare sedges.

This crescent of forest is so rare (old-growth northern mesic forests make up less than 0.1% of Wisconsin’s forests) and so important to the preservation of biotic diversity of northern Wisconsin that the entire stand is designated by the new master plan for management as native community. It is to serve as a biological reference site for northern mesic forests in the Midwest.

Recent studies out of Harvard and other universities clearly show that garlic mustard not only out-competes the woodland ground layer, but it secretes toxins into the soil that kill the soil fungi which these late-successional trees require to survive, and the tree seedlings are inhibited or even killed.

It took nature at least 500 years to develop this old-growth forest and the DNR has been protecting it for more than 80 years. To place this precious landscape at dire risk when other options are available would be very short-sighted and foolish, indeed. While we can never absolutely protect any natural community from potential invasion, we do have the responsibility to be as careful as we possibly can.

Running hundreds of off-road vehicles through or nearby our state natural areas will almost certainly guarantee new invasions of exotic pests into these rare and precious natural communities.