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UW Researchers Envision The Future Of Northern Wisconsin Lakes

June 9, 2003
Emily Carlson, 608-262-9772 emilycarlson@facstaff.wisc.edu

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MADISON -- Northern Wisconsin is changing, and, in the coming years, this hallowed holiday spot could change even more dramatically, according to a report from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"The region really is in transition, both socially and ecologically," says Garry Peterson, a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow who studies ecological management and who contributed to the development of the report. "It's changing into something new."

In the last decade, for example, the population has grown by 15 percent; cabins have been bulldozed to make way for "starter castles," or large, extravagant second homes; and plans have been drawn up to fexpand the stretch of highway between southern Wisconsin and Minocqua from two to four lanes.

To understand how this region, known as the Northern Highlands Lake District (NHLD), might change during the next 25 years, UW-Madison researchers from the Center for Limnology teamed up with people from the NHLD community. They include officials from the county and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; members of area lake associations and the area's Native American tribes; local realtors and business owners; and part- and full-time residents.

Together, they developed four scenarios, which forecast different drivers of change - both positive and negative - that could help those interested plan for the future of this Wisconsin resource. As Peterson explains, the future will depend on the interactions between those who occupy the land and the land itself: "It's about the connection between people and nature."

To develop this future picture, the group used scenarios, instead of simulation models.

"The traditional approach in environmental science is to take data and build simulation models. Our experience with models is that they're overly constrained, too narrow in perspective," says Stephen Carpenter, a limnologist who led the project. Plus, models are based on what has happened in the past, not what could happen in the future. "The future usually is very different," he says.

But the scenarios are grounded in scientific research, including previously developed, as well as new, simulation models of NHLD economics, population growth and ecology. They draw on more than two decades of data collected from the North Temperate Lakes Long Term Ecological Research project, a study led by the Center for Limnology that has investigated ecological changes in water chemistry, lake habitat and fish composition, among others, in a suite of NHLD lakes.

"The seeds of all these scenarios are there [in the Northern Highlands] today," says Peterson. "But each scenario shows us what could happen if one of the emerging trends dominates."

Carpenter and his team will present these scenarios to the public at the annual Lake Fair in Vilas County beginning June 11. To gather more input, they've also developed a web-based questionnaire at http://lakefutures.wisc.edu.

"What we want to do is help people in this area talk about the future and think about how what they're doing now could change the Northern Highlands," explains Carpenter. "The research helps us think more realistically about what measures and models we use. By engaging the people who live there, we can organize our research better. It will lead to more comprehensive thinking."

In the first scenario, called "Anaheim North," tourism takes over. Theme parks, big businesses and urban sprawl cover much of the landscape. The dramatic increase in annual visitors also leads to an expansion of the Lac du Flambeau Casino. "There's an intensive Wisconsin Dells effect that ripples through the area," says Carpenter.

The second scenario, called "Walleye Commons," presents a different future. Here, the driving force of change is deregulation. The state government, crippled by financial crisis, relaxes shoreline management practices and building restrictions. Along with difficult-to-control ecological disturbances, such as the spread of chronic wasting disease and invasive species, the landscape changes, encouraging many tourists and residents to pack up and head to new destinations. At the same time, the Lac du Flambeau tribe expands its land holdings, introduces experimental management strategies and experiences a cultural renaissance. Through their efforts, the quality of the lake and land slowly recovers.

"There's an energy and talent and different vision in the third scenario, called the 'Northwoods Quilt,'" says Carpenter. Here, recent retirees who relocated to the NHLD play an integral role in preserving the natural beauty that originally attracted them to the area. The lake associations to which they belong become effective forums for discussing management strategies. One practice adopted is to designate certain lakes for certain uses, such as power boating or canoeing. "There's a patchwork of different kinds of ecosystems," explains Carpenter.

The final scenario presents an extreme situation, called "Refugee Revolution": A plane flying over Chicago drops two tanks of radioactive dust, causing people to flee from the urban terrorism to the NHLD area. As a result, the population doubles in size and new businesses emerge. The government also turns to the region as a national resource for water, fish, deer and even trees.

In discussing the different scenarios, Carpenter says, "Particular events may seem implausible, but they're a class of events - a believable category of what could happen."

For this reason, he says the scenarios should be considered together, not separately. "They should be thought of as a set that exposes different vulnerabilities or sources of robustness or resilience. Together, they present different dimensions of how things might change," he says.

The development of these scenarios is supported by the Resilience Alliance, a multidisciplinary research group that works to develop new ways to manage and cope with change and uncertainty in complex social-ecological systems.

For more information, contact -
Stephen Carpenter, 608-262-8690 srcarpen@facstaff.wisc.edu
Garry Peterson, 608-262-3088 gdpeterson@wisc.edu

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