The log buildings in Superior National Forest have been used for research on wolves and forest ecology.
A bit of North Woods history is headed for demolition, the victim of changing times and tightening budgets, much to the dismay of scientists.
Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, a cluster of log buildings in Superior National Forest have been used by some of the state's most notable research pioneers in wolf behavior, natural fire history and forest ecology.
While the Kawishiwi Field Laboratory is still used for wolf research, the branch of the U.S. Forest Service that owns the buildings has not used them for decades and can no longer afford to keep them.
"Our whole research budget just keeps getting whacked and whacked and going down, so there's a big push to get rid of buildings that are surplus to our needs," said Richard Sindt, an engineer for Forest Service's Northern Research Station (NRS).
An environmental assessment lays out several possible uses for the site, but its preferred choice is "to dismantle and dispose" of the buildings.
NRS is seeking comments from the public and from other federal, state and local governments and will hold two meetings in Ely on Tuesday.
Demolition seems like the worst alternative to Chuck Wick, a former Forest Service ranger and retired ecology and wildlife teacher at Vermilion Community College.
The site is an "absolutely beautiful spot" along the South Kawishiwi River about 12 miles southeast of Ely, Wick said. "It's perfectly located to do wildlife research."
He worked there in the 1960s with Bud Heinselman, noted forestry ecologist and wilderness advocate. It's also a perfect place to study how climate change might affect the forest, Wick said.
The site contains 11 buildings, nine of which are considered historic. They include a main lodge, office, bunkhouse, warehouse/garage, boathouse, pump house, oil house, sauna and root cellar. Two other buildings were built in 1957.
Their condition ranges from good to poor, said Sindt, but all of them are deteriorating.
"The main building has got bats living in the attic. There's bat guano you can smell when you go in there, and nobody uses that upstairs," he said. "Another building, the water lines are all shot, and leaks are everywhere. There's pine beetles eating holes in logs."
Sindt said a very rough estimate of bringing the buildings back to satisfactory condition is $1 million.
Individuals have asked whether they can buy the structures and move them, but Sindt has told them no -- at least not yet. Federal regulations require an environmental assessment and proposals for what could be done with the buildings, he said. Although the report recommends demolition, it also lists other possibilities: selling the buildings to another entity, leasing them but retaining ownership and allowing someone to buy and move them to private land.
Historic nature of buildings
It's likely to get complicated.
NRS is a research division of the U.S. Forest Service and owns the buildings, but it's separate from Superior National Forest, which owns the land.
Kris Reichenbach, public affairs officer for Superior National Forest, said the forest will not sell the land, but it doesn't want to buy the buildings either.
"We're really stretched to take care of facilities that are high-use and high-demand," she said.
Another complication is the historic nature of the buildings and possible restrictions on their future use. The architecture and craftsmanship of the log buildings made the site eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district.
Watching closely is Dave Mech, senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who has used the Kawishiwi Field Lab at virtually no cost since 1968. Mech and assistants have monitored wolf populations in an 800-square-mile area north and east of Ely.
"We have more than 40 years of good data about the wolf population in the central Superior National Forest, and that's what we need to keep going," he said.
The convenient location of the field lab is crucial for his work and for other researchers, Mech said.
But he said he understands the dilemma facing the forest service and is waiting to see what happens next. "Our dilemma is what are we going to do if they tear those buildings down," he said. "And I don't have an answer for that."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388