I’m down to my last couple days working here in Grand Marais and on the Gunflint Ranger District………it has been quite a ride here. For those of you who are wondering, I started in Grand Marais in August of 2001 and I’ll be leaving here in a couple days so that makes it pretty much eleven years on the nose that I’ve been here……and my time here has been pretty much spectacular.
The thing about that is, I can’t take a lot of credit, there have been so many people working with me that have really done the work. We have some outstanding employees here in our office and they keep charging forward to help us meet our budget commitments. And then they do more to help us within the community.
Much of our forest is about 100 years old and you’ve noticed the older trees are dying. The Gunflint Trail Scenic Byway committee, the biologists from the State and the Tribes, the County Biomass Committee, the timber industry and several local landowners have worked with us to find ways to restore our forests to a healthier state. One of the facts I learned last Friday is that on the Gunflint District during my time here, we have planted 2.1 million trees, a combination of white, red and jack pine, white spruce, cedar and tamarack will be the next forest we all enjoy.
Speaking of new forests, we have had around 800 volunteers planting and caring for trees during Gunflint Greenup. We have had our challenges, but this community doesn’t say quit. After Ham Lake Fire, there were plenty of reasons for despair, we all could have slumped back to drown our sorrows but another choice was made, a choice to clean up and create a new forest. The Scenic Byway Committee wrote and received a $250,000 grant for the purposes of forest restoration. With that we cleaned up some of the dead trees along the Gunflint, prepared some areas for planting, planted seedlings and seeded jack pine. As you drive up the Gunflint, you can start to see the next generation of forest and it will have a healthy component of pine trees.
Of course Ham Lake was only one of five major fires we had during my time here…..or should I say five major wildfires. If you look back at the blowdown of 1999, no small event, there have been a number of opportunities for us to get together and find reasons to succeed. For several years we got together and worked on prescribed fire, I think totaling about 40,000 acres worth. I’m sure that for many of you it may have seemed like we were coming in heavy handed to get these things done. However from my point of view we worked with a lot of businesses up the Trail and I got to work with a lot of great people. Without you, our work would have been a real challenge, but with you, we accomplished quite a bit.
Then the real fires started. Alpine Lake, Cavity Lake, Redeye Lake, Famine Lake………and then Ham Lake, the most destructive fire in our forest’s history. There were homes, businesses, garages and out building lost, 148 between the US and Canada, but “WE” survived……and through working together have grown stronger because of it. I mentioned Gunflint Greenup, but there is also the Chik Wauk Museum and Nature Center, and our venture with Becoming a Boundary Waters Family. Three great partnerships working together for the good of our forest.
Then there was that peculiar change of events. Toward the end of 2007, we were “as dry as we have seen it up here”…..until September when the rain started. I remember someone telling me their lake went up 14 inches with one storm. Who would have thought that next we would have eight inches in two hours on June 6, 2008? I’m not sure how wide spread that rain was, but it sure was on the slopes above Grand Marais………..and water still flows downhill…….and that much water REALLY flows downhill……really fast….and will move heaven and earth………or at least a lot of earth.
But again, we found a way to work together and I could even find one bright spot in all that. Some of you know that I bike to work, at least on the nicer days. Well for much of the rest of the summer, I had a lane on the hill going down the Gunflint pretty much to myself…….or at least that part of the lane that didn’t wash away. Once it was fixed, I again was sharing the road and waving to friends as they passed me.
Friends……..I’d somehow like to acknowledge all the friends I’ve made up here and all I’ve worked with…….. or maybe I should say all of you who put up with me……….but I know if I tried, I’d forget someone and all of you are important. So I’ll generalize a bit and hope you all know how special you’ve made my time here. Before I arrived, I met and was working with Sheriff Dave Wirt and that only got better after I settled in. When he retired in early 2005 and Sheriff Mark Falk took over, we continued that great working relationship. I wondered a few times if Sheriff Dave knew what 2005 would bring with Alpine Lake fire and the beginning of our large fires? Talk about a new Sheriff being baptized by fire……..and the start of a great working relationship!!! Then there are the rest of the office, the deputies and dispatch people I got to know……it has been great!!
Within the Cook County Board of Commissioners there have been a few changes since I arrived. I believe Jan Hall is the only commissioner who has been on the board throughout my tenure here. I have gotten to work with nearly all the commissioners on one project or another and I truly appreciate all that we have done together.
Though maybe not as visible, I have had the pleasure of working with Grand Portage on several issues. Norman DesChampe has been the Chairman throughout my tenure and with his staff we have struck an outstanding working relationship. Norman is one of the great leaders within the Minnesota Chippewa Tribes and I can only think how lucky I’ve been to know and work with him.
I’ve mentioned the support and help we’ve gotten from businesses in the County and that has been nothing short of amazing. There is just no way we could achieve what we do without the support and help from all of you. As strange as it might seem, much of our wildlife habitat management and our fuels reduction goals are accomplished through the timber industry and logging. Most everyone knows Hedstroms and we are very lucky to have them in our back yard, but there are also so many others working in the woods to help us do what we think is right for our forests. As I think about it, the eagle and wolf populations have been successfully restored, and we’re working on the lynx. Our next challenge is likely moose and we’ll keep working with the tribes and DNR to do what we can for that species.
A special relationship we have is with the outfitters, guides and hospitality businesses who help us manage the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as well as our campgrounds. Special because we need those people to help us succeed, but sometimes the policies that come from our upper levels can …………well……..add a little stress. And I am humbled by how patient my business friends can be to find a way to keep going………I think it’s patience…….? But I do know how much I appreciate what they do for us.
Since the volunteer fire departments are………well………volunteer, I’m pretty much talking about many of the same people who work in businesses or other agencies. But the relationship is different when you’re working side by side. Now we meet, train and work together to help all of our friends in Cook County…….as it should be.
The other agencies are many, from the City of Grand Marais to the County, the State, Grand Portage and even Canada. I’ve said this in different meetings, but the way you have all come together during our natural disasters is a model for the nation. Several of the people who have come here to help with those disasters have commented on how they are used to having to bring communities together when they come to help. But in our community ………….well the leaders here pretty much had their acts together and the incoming teams were in awe of what they saw….doesn’t get much better than that!!
There have been a few other adventures that we have worked on together, a snowmobile trail connection with Grand Portage, some other trail reroutes, a county wide ATV plan (which after all the debate, we’ve finally implemented), some work in our campgrounds, a few miles of hiking trail work, biking trails, a few hundred acres of fuels reduction along with a variety of small projects, too many to name, where I’ve had the chance to work with so many citizens of Cook County where I owe you all so much and thank you so much for your help.
The one disappointment I have is that I have to this point been unable to bring a solution for access to South Fowl Lake. As I leave I know I have some co-workers back here who’ll help see that through the final steps. My disappointment extends to the fact that though this really is a fairly small project, I was unable to bring people together for a resolution. We are cleaning up a few details that will support my decision and the final proposal before it is submitted it to the Court.
So as I prepare my next adventure, I leave here grateful for all those who’ve chosen to work with me, grateful to be a part of a resilient community, grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. But mostly grateful for the friends that have welcomed my family and me to be a part of Cook County!