The idea that wilderness is untouched by man is written into law, but it’s not so accurate. Some of America’s most iconic wilderness areas have a long history of human manipulation and management.
Using fire, people have cultivated the forests of the Great Lakes since time immemorial.
“Finding these…spots where you had five, six, seven fires occurring within the lifespan of an individual tree, that was really what made us start to realize there was a more nuanced story waiting to be told,” said Evan Larson, a forest researcher.
It’s a story told by the region’s first inhabitants, and affirmed in the hearts of old trees.
We’re going to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Minnesota’s border with Canada – more than a million acres of lakes, islands and peninsulas.
Points North, a podcast about the land, water, and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes, is produced by Interlochen Public Radio. Subscribe and listen to Points North wherever you find podcasts: Apple | Spotify
Producer: Patrick Shea
Hosts: Dan Wanschura and Morgan Springer
Editor: Morgan Springer
Additional editing: Peter Payette, Dan Wanschura
Music: Max Dragoo, Marlin Ledin, Santah, Easter, Aldous Ichnit
DAMON PANEK: You know, I really do think that all cultures have a relationship with fire. And some of us don’t have that far to go back in our ancestral knowledge to find that connection.
Our Spirit…our lifeforce is attracted to things we’re familiar with. Our relationship with fire, that’s been going on since we became Homo sapiens.
MORGAN SPRINGER, CO-HOST: From Interlochen Public Radio, this is [Un]Natural Selection. I’m Morgan Springer.
DAN WANSCHURA, CO-HOST: And I’m Dan Wanschura. This series looks at the role of humans in the natural world.
SPRINGER: As a species, we have dramatically changed the landscapes we inhabit – for better, and for worse.
WANSCHURA: Today, Episode 5: “Rekindling Wilderness”.
Reporter Patrick Shea has this story.
PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: Today, I’ve got a story that challenges the entire premise of this series.
WANSCHURA: How so?
SHEA: Well, these are all stories about environmental management for lack of a snappier term. And the title is [Un]Natural Selection. And doesn’t that sort of imply that our selections, what we do in the environment, isn’t natural?
WANSCHURA: That’s a good point.
SPRINGER: Yeah, with the words [Un]Natural Selection, it’s as if everything we do is apart from nature rather than a part of nature. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?
SHEA: That’s exactly what I’m getting at. It suggests this separation between the human world and the natural world. And that concept is pretty widely accepted in American society.
I can definitely say I grew up with that idea: that nature is out there, apart from us somehow. And there’s a good chance we all did. Let me ask you, what comes to your mind when you hear the word “wilderness?”
SPRINGER: Vast expanse of land, not a person in sight.
WANSCHURA: Like the backcountry, in a way. You’re out there with the animals, and once in a while you might see a fellow hiker.
SHEA: That’s pretty spot on, if you look at the legal definition of wilderness here in the U.S.
Rosalyn LaPier is an environmental historian. She says the Wilderness Act of 1964 influences the way we think about these places today.
ROSALYN LAPIER: In the Wilderness Act, we define wilderness as a place “untrammeled by man,” as a place that is “pristine.”
SHEA: A place where “man is just a visitor, and does not remain.”
LAPIER: That definition really erases indigenous people off the landscape.
SHEA: But this story is an example of that definition being totally wrong. Because some of our most cherished wilderness destinations have actually been shaped by human action. Specifically, with the use of fire.
We’re going to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s on Minnesota’s border with Canada – more than a million acres of lakes, islands and peninsulas.
Every year, around 250,000 people venture into this labyrinth of land and water. The most popular spots are in old growth pine forests, where the sun fills the woods and blueberries are everywhere.
And speaking of popular, did you know that the boundary waters is the most visited wilderness area in the entire county?
WANSCHURA: I did not know that.
SHEA: Not including parks. I’m talking actual, bona fide wilderness. That’s the highest kind of protection a natural area can get in this country.
These are places where you can’t take a motor vehicle of any kind, or even a bicycle. And you can only visit in small groups. It’s a whole other level of getting away from it all. That’s exactly what Evan Larson came to the Boundary Waters to do as a kid.
EVAN LARSON: My earliest memories are of this really kind of wet, heavy foggy mysterious place. I’ve got these images of seeing a bull moose across a lake, kind of like walking through in this misty rain. One trip we climbed on top of some of the bluffs, looking from that high and across this landscape and just seeing lakes and trees and that’s it. My early introductions were very much that it was a place to get away from people.
SHEA: But in the summer of 2011, Evan was there for a different reason. He was part of a team of researchers, trying to piece together the history of these forests. They traveled by canoes, searching for old, fallen trees. When they’d find one, they’d look at the annual growth rings. That can tell you the age of a tree, but also what was going on around it – things like droughts, floods or fires.
And near the end of that research trip, they came across something that started to change their perception of this landscape.
LARSON: We got up before the sun was up, got on the water when it was just glass and booked it. And we did this incredible loop up and around Coleman island and back. And the first island that we stopped at, we got out and came onto some of these stumps that had five, six, seven very clear fire scars. That was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that in the Boundary Waters.
SHEA: Evan says the dominant narrative at that point was that fires here were few and far between, and those were big fires, started by lighting strikes. But what he and his colleagues found over the next several summers was widespread evidence of smaller, more frequent fires.
LARSON: That was really eye-opening. To realize that within this landscape where the common knowledge and the basic assumption was that yeah, there’s fire and it’s really important, but it’s these big events every hundred years and it just torches the landscape and it starts everything fresh.
And so to start finding these, especially on islands and peninsulas, these spots where you had five, six, seven fires occurring within the lifespan of an individual tree, that was really what made us start to realize there was a more nuanced story waiting to be told.
SHEA: And that story is one of environmental management: a major human footprint in a place we now call “wilderness.” Evan and his colleagues were seeing signs of prescribed fire. Those fires were started by the Ojibwe, who cultivated these forests.
WANSCHURA: Back up a second. How can you tell all that from an old tree stump?
SHEA: Ok, that’s a good question, but the answer is gonna take us into the weeds a little bit. So bare with me. This research method is called “dendrochronology.
That’s a 16-letter word, but Lane Johnson can break it down for us. He was with Evan Larson on that island in the Boundary Waters, looking at those stumps. And they’ve co-authored several papers about their findings.
LANE JOHNSON: People typically break dendrochronology into the two root words. “Dendro” in reference to tree, “chronos” in reference to time. So it’s the study of time through tree rings.
SHEA: Lane is a research forester at the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center. That’s about a 2 hour drive south of the Boundary Waters.
I met Lane there, and we went for a walk through a grove of massive red pines.
LANE JOHNSON: This is pretty classic fire damage..
SHEA: We’re stopped at a red pine about 8 feet around and 90 feet tall.
LANE: (Where you’ve got exposed wood without bark, you’ve got frozen resin oozing out of the heart of the pine. There’s char, that suggests there’s multiple fires, not just one.)
SHEA: When a tree like this one falls down – that is, an old tree with signs of fire damage – that gives researchers like Lane a perfect opportunity to look into the past by looking inside the tree.
And that part is actually pretty simple – it’s just counting.
And if you count from the outer edge all the way to the center, you can figure out the tree’s age and when it got its first fire scar.
JOHNSON: This tree scarred relatively young…1681, 1682.
SPRINGER: Wait, 1600s?
SHEA: Isn’t that amazing? I just think this stuff is so cool. You know, to be interacting with a wood that old
WANSCHURA: And that he can pinpoint within a couple years, hundreds of years ago
SHEA: Yeah, trees are such good record keepers with these rings. And I mean, this chunk of red pine in Minnesota is almost 200 years older than the state of Minnesota.
SPRINGER: That really puts it in context.
WANSCHURA: That gives me some home state pride right there, Patrick.
SHEA: There’s some pretty cool trees over there, Dan. And so much history has happened around these trees. it just blows my mind.
Anyways, fires show up as these strange little squiggles in the tree ring record.
JOHNSON: You can see the ripples , here’s fire number two, three, four.
SHEA: I think I’m seeing it now. fire, fire, fire.
SHEA: But just because fires happened in the past, that doesn’t mean they were started by people.
JOHNSON: It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything without proper context. But like this particular tree, this came from the Boundary Waters. It has seven to eight fires recorded on it over its life. It’s growing on a small island. If you look at the modern period, the frequency of lighting starts on that particular landform—there aren’t any. And so, it makes you sort of wonder: where was the fire coming from in an island setting like that, and where did it go?
SHEA: Where did it go? Lane, Evan and others noticed a pattern in the Boundary Waters, and all over the Upper Great Lakes. On almost all the trees with fire damage, scars stop showing up around the same time.
LARSON: You know there was this stump, and the record starts in the 1700s, and there’s ten fire years then it stops in the 1890s. And lighting did not stop in the 1890s.
SHEA: What did stop were prescribed fires. Lane and Evan were looking at physical evidence of the government’s assault on indigenous cultures.
DAMON PANEK: Our Ojibwe, Anishinaabe identity is based on a landscape that has fire on it, and the ecosystems that fire creates as a result of that.
SHEA: That’s Damon Panek, who you heard in the intro to this episode.
PANEK: And if this space had fire in it, which it did but now it doesn’t, what does that mean for our connection to our origin space?
SHEA: Damon is a member of the White Earth Nation, and he works as the wildlife operations manager for the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Prescribed fire is a big part of his job, and he says it’s been a key part of Ojibwe culture since time immemorial.
PANEK: And it’s way deeper than just burning a space. Especially what we’re trying to do recently with a lot of the berry burns, the blueberry burns.
SHEA: Remember those tall red pines and blueberry patches in the Boundary Waters? Blueberries thrive in open forests, with lots of sun. They also do really well in acidic soils. And pine needles are acidic. And the final link here is that red pines thrive with fire. It keeps out competition from other, more flammable tree species.
Damon says that by frequently burning those forests, his ancestors created ideal conditions for blueberries to grow. And back then, maximizing blueberry production was a matter of life and death.
PANEK: Imagine being a native person living here 500 years ago through the winters that they had back then.
SHEA: It was negative 15 today.
PANEK: Yeah. Even just that. Let’s just say that providing for your family for a winter up here was tough. It’s almost like your whole summer was just preparing for winter. Because you know what’s coming, you’ve got to have that cache of food. So if you know that you can create an abundance of berries so that you can harvest them and you can store up, then wouldn’t you do it?
WANSCHURA: I would.
SPRINGER: It makes complete sense that they created that abundance with fire so that they could have food.
SHEA: Yeah. But then, starting in the late 1800s, prescribed fire was made illegal by state and federal governments. That was exactly when Lane and Evan saw the fire scars stop. The ban came after big, out-of-control wildfires destroyed homes and towns. But the big motivation for the government was the forests. They wanted to protect valuable timber from going up in smoke.
In reality, prescribed fires weren’t particularly dangerous. But still, anyone caught igniting one could be fined for the value of that timber, even up to $5,000.
PANEK: $5,000 in the late 1800s was a lot of money.
WANSCHURA: It still is!
SPRINGER: I wouldn’t want a $5,000 fine.
SHEA: Totally. But what was maybe even more costly back then was the jail time you could face. That was time you couldn’t spend getting ready for those harsh winters we talked about. This action from the government led to Indigenous land management being put on hold.
That marked the beginning of fire suppression in the Upper Great Lakes. And Damon says the suppression of fire goes hand in hand with the suppression of knowledge.
PANEK: The only way to know it is to do it. We didn’t have manuals for how to manage a forest. It was literally passed down through story, through observation. But for any kind of cultural practice, you can lose that institutional knowledge about that…if you stop doing it.
SHEA: And for more than a century, they did stop doing that. For the most part.
PANEK: And so they’d have to sneak it. You’d take a rock, wrap it with birch bark. You’d drive down the road, start it on fire and throw it out the window. These people were still trying to do this stuff, because it was part of their understanding of their relationship with this landscape. But all these external forces kept pushing back.
PATRICK: Damon says you can recover suppressed knowledge by working to bring fire back.
In 2017, he helped make that happen on federal land.
That’s when the National Park Service held a prescribed burn in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on the south shore of Lake Superior.
Damon has deep family ties to those islands, and wanted to bring back Indigenous cultural practices there. Before the burn, he first surveyed the neighboring tribal communities, and heard about this history of blueberry harvests on Stockton Island.
PANEK: One elder would talk about how they hung like grapes. Another elder talked about when he was a little kid, he remembered sitting in the blueberry bush and all he could see was blue.
SHEA: There are still blueberries there, but not like that. One elder even remembered the last prescribed fire on the island. Then Damon brought in researchers who affirmed those memories.
PANEK: And so we took the academics, the dendrochronology work. We ended up having a big get together with park managers, DNR folks and tribal folks. We had a discussion about whether or not we should burn on this landscape.
SHEA: And they decided they should. The Park Service started making a burn plan, in part because of the cultural value of blueberry harvests to the neighboring tribal communities. But also because there’s a rare ecosystem on Stockton Island that would eventually get shaded out by other species if it isn’t burned.
A couple months before the burn, the local Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa held a feast to commemorate the event.
PANEK: We basically invited any tribe that had any sort of interest in the area, interest in the islands, to it. We ended up having I think 13 different tribes represented at that ceremony. Tribal folks from Michigan, from all over Wisconsin, all over Minnesota. That was, in a way, letting the island know we’re going to burn again.
A couple months later the weather window opened up and we had the chance to do it. So we burned on October 20th, 2017. Five acres on Stockton Island. We let the fire back across the landscape so it would go against the wind. What happens then is it marches really slow. It just was perfect.
SHEA: Did that feeling like a turning point for management in the Great Lakes? Do you think things are starting to change?
PANEK: I think so. It seems like more land management agencies are taking into account more of the traditional cultural practices, and utilizing that knowledge to influence their decisions on that land.
SHEA: The National Park Service now has an official burn plan for Stockton Island, with fires scheduled every few years. And that’s really quite a pivot from the late 1800s to see the federal government, in this instance, returning the cultural use of fire to the landscape.
Stockton Island is a success story. But Damon says there’s still an irony in the way that so-called wilderness is typically managed.
Take the boundary waters, for example. It was set aside to be left alone. But we know that the most popular spots for visitors are open forests with old red pines, and blueberries everywhere. Those places didn’t just exist like that on their own.
PANEK: You think of all these national parks and natural areas. Their conditions, which prompted them to become protected, are the result of the management of fire over all these years. The Boundary Waters wouldn’t be what it is without fire on the landscape. And that’s what qualified it to become a protected area. Which is super interesting because when these management agencies come in, they exclude what caused it to become that protected area. It’s just crazy.
SHEA: Without fire, places that have been cherished for centuries will start to change.
Damon, Lane and Evan all hope to see a rekindled relationship with fire in the Upper Great Lakes.
And Evan Larson says this growing body of research and the way it’s being used feels important. And somehow familiar.
LARSON: It’s been really hard to focus on a lot of my other research because it seems so insignificant compared to the implications of this project.
One of our collaborators on part of this is Robin Kimmerer, and she wrote a book called Braiding Sweetgrass. The response to that book really exemplifies this yearning people have to start to understand the deeper relationships we’ve always felt, I think, or we’ve wanted. That connection to place. And I think that’s really important.
I think one of the really key lessons from that perspective is that so much of the narrative is about how human impacts are always negative. You know, the title of this series suggests that if you say human impact, what you mean is “bad.”
Fire history and red pine in the boundary waters. There are very few things that better exemplify how human impact and actions can be beautiful.