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Dwindling Apostle lifers treasure time remaining

  • Article by: MEG JONES
  • Associated Press
  • August 24, 2013 - 12:05 AM

BAYFIELD, Wis. — Julian Nelson had much to lose.

The Apostle Islands are part of his heritage, just as they are for many families living on the northern tip of Wisconsin that juts into Lake Superior.

Nelson has lived among the Apostle Islands all his life, operating the Madeline Island ferry, serving as Bayfield mayor and working as a commercial fisherman in the cold Lake Superior waters. He purchased land on Rocky Island shortly after World War II.

And yet at a congressional hearing in the 1960s, he testified in favor of transforming his land and other parcels among the 21 islands into a national park.

"I believe when we look back at the last 50 years, with all the money people have come into, many of the islands would've been purchased and there would've been a lot of 'No Trespassing' signs," said Nelson, now 97.

Today, thousands of kayakers, hikers, campers, lighthouse enthusiasts and boaters visit the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore each year, exploring spectacular sea caves, pristine beaches and coves and pitching tents among some of the largest stands of remnant old-growth forests in the upper Midwest. What most visitors may not realize is that some of the land is still in the hands of families who bought their property before it became a national park, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported (http://bit.ly/1bIbzRi).

Most of the Apostle Islands were privately owned when Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson pushed to make them a national park. Owners were forced to sell their land at prices deemed fair market value by the federal government, with a small percentage deciding to hang on to their property for up to 25 years. An even smaller number chose the life estate option, Julian Nelson's family among them.

Those seven property owners still have life estates — meaning they can stay on the land tax-free until they die. Three reside on Sand Island, three on Rocky Island and one on Bear Island. Actually, they no longer own their land. The government does. All were compensated years ago for the land's value, although they received far less than those who sold their land outright. As part of their agreement, they can legally reside on the property until the last person on the deed dies.

In most of the life estates, several family members — including the youngest — were placed on the deed. Then the government estimated the natural life expectancy of the youngest person and paid accordingly.

Nelson put his children Bob and Heidi on the agreement as the landowners of record. Heidi Nelson was in high school at the time, and the government estimated her life expectancy at 72. She and her brother no longer remember how much they received, only that "when we got the check I thought, 'is that all?'" said Heidi Nelson, who was born in 1953, three years after her brother.

Created by an act of Congress in September 1970, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore includes 21 islands and a 12-mile strip of shoreline that encompasses around 42,000 acres of land.

In his quest to turn the area into a national park, Wisconsin's savvy and influential Sen. Nelson invited President John F. Kennedy to visit the remote and rugged islands dotted with century-old lighthouses. At the time, Kennedy, an avid sailor, visited Bayfield and flew over the Apostle Islands in Marine One in September 1963. Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" — widely credited with sparking the environmental movement in the U.S. — had been on the bestseller list for a year.

The move to preserve and protect America's wilderness took on an added urgency during the 1960s when people were shocked to see the Cuyahoga River in Ohio burning. That and other high-profile examples of pollution fueled a big growth period for the National Park System in the 1960s and '70s.

"Virtually all these places were created with private land," said Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands superintendent.

A total of 280 separate tracts of land were acquired to create the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, with 240 privately held. The owners of 41 of those tracts elected to accept either 25-year leases or life estates.

Before the 1960s, landowners whose property became national parks were not given much money or time to leave their land, fueling a lot of anger and resentment. But by the 1960s the government began trying to accommodate landowners, pay them fair market value and give them enough time to leave, said Krumenaker.

That doesn't mean there weren't hard feelings among the folks who owned land in the Apostle Islands. There were a lot of upset people. But once the park was a done deal, most settled relatively quickly, some filed lawsuits and others chose to stay on their land for either 25 years or the life estate. The 25-year leases ended years ago.

Warren Jensch, 62, and his family have 18 acres on Sand Island that date back to his great-grandfather Sam Campbell, who bought it at the turn of the last century because he suffered from hay fever and the island's clean air didn't bother his sinuses. Jensch spent his summers visiting his grandparents.

"It's all you thought about all winter long, going to see grandma and having pancakes in the morning," said Jensch, who lives in Bayfield.

Sometimes the weather turned bad and he and his family were stuck on Sand Island until they could hitch a ride from a fisherman. There was no question the family would opt for a life lease, said Jensch.

"Generally, we're not against parks. But to come in and threaten to condemn things just because they wanted it, we didn't think that was fair," said Jensch.

Life estate leaseholders are asked to maintain the buildings and property and are not allowed to make changes without the National Park Service's OK or to construct new buildings. As some of the 25-year lease properties reverted to the Park Service, some cabins and buildings were burned down or removed, while others, such as land on Sand Island known as the Westhagen property, were renovated.

"We're now in the process of transforming property that had been so neglected. We hope to make it a really cool public place," Krumenaker said of buildings on the former Westhagen property. "The ultimate goal is to make Gaylord Nelson's dream of keeping the shorelines undeveloped and accessible a reality."

Brenda Erickson's family has more than four acres on Rocky Island that once belonged to her great-grandfather. She recalls doing chores until 11 a.m., which usually meant mending fishing nets, with the rest of the day to explore the island with her younger brother and sister. Her father smoked fish in a converted refrigerator, starting in the morning so the fish was ready by lunch.

"It's better than any television program you could imagine. The storms were just amazing — watching 4-foot waves crash over the dock and thunder and lightning," said Erickson, 58, who lives in Bayfield. "It was peaceful, too — listening to the waves and crickets. When you went to bed at night, you slept so sound."

Her grandfather, Melvin Erickson, owned the property at the time the park was formed and though her grandmother wanted to sell, he dug in his heels and opted for the life estate, placing his grandchildren's names on the deed, a move Brenda Erickson now calls "a really wise decision."

Lorraine Masotas, 81, of Waukegan, Ill., drove to Bayfield for a weeklong visit with her husband in 1960, took an excursion boat around the Apostle Islands, and stopped for lunch at the Rocky Island Air Haven restaurant, which billed itself as Wisconsin's northernmost dining establishment before closing in 1972.

"I was fascinated and I said, 'I'm not leaving until I have a piece of this,'" said Masotas. "I feel more at home there than I do anywhere else."

She found someone who wanted to sell land on Bear Island, took a boat out, looked it over and bought 76 acres. Masotas and her husband built two cabins and a utility building for a water pump and generator and spent a month or two each summer on their island idyll.

Masotas was unhappy to learn Bear Island and 20 other islands in the Apostles would be turned into a park, and for a while she dodged the land-acquisition representatives who called her and her husband in Illinois and stopped at their island property.

"Finally, I figured they're not going to go away," said Masotas, who had a real estate license. "I thought life estate was the best option. I didn't want to sell outright, because I'd have nothing, and 25 years wasn't enough. A lot of them took a 25-year lease and realized that wasn't enough."

Masotas knows at her age the property won't be in her family much longer. Her husband died last year, and her children are not on the deed.

Among the seven life estates, it is possible the 4 1/2 acres on Rocky Island in the name of Jim Lynn and his older brother and younger sister could be the last one remaining. Jim Lynn is 52 and his sister is 48. Their uncle John Chapin bought the land from Julian Nelson for $3,500 in 1970, shortly before Congress voted to make it a park. Chapin, a game warden, died a few years later.

"There's a plaque on the wall in our cabin that says, 'John W. Chapin.' I thank him every time we go out to the island," said Lynn, who lives in Ashland and spends much of his summer and fall on Rocky Island. "We're among the youngest life estate holders and we'll probably be the last family to have a life estate out there."

Lynn's mother was married on Rocky Island and before she died in 2010, she asked him to bring her ashes — which he keeps in a teapot — to the island. His four children love the property and visit often. But they know it won't be in the family forever.

"They've been told to keep me on life support for as long as they want," Lynn joked.

Longevity is in the Nelson family's genetics — Julian Nelson is hale and hearty at 97. His children Bob and Heidi don't get out to the land on Rocky Island as often as they once did. But they have warm memories — of the several pairs of pants Bob's mother packed because he always seemed to be wet, of the blueberries Heidi helped pick and were made into pies baked in square cake pans.

Julian Nelson knows his decision to speak out in favor of the park didn't sit well with his neighbors and friends, but he said it was the right thing to do.

"I like the fact people who can't afford a big boat should be able to visit the islands with their families," he said.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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