New book highlights the threats a love for northern lakes pose to their health
Canoes by the lakeshore in Minnesota (Getty Images Creative)
Ted Rulseh and a number of interview subjects in his new book, “Ripple Effects” love the lakes of northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. But as he writes, that love is a double-edged sword, and the way we treat our lakes can cause irrevocable damage, preventing them from being enjoyed by future generations.
The book, published by the University of Wisconsin Press and out this month, jumps between personal anecdotes about families fishing pristine waters on one of the thousands of lakes across the three states, the science of water quality and the threats posed by increased development, government deregulation, invasive species and climate change. While he details how we’re “loving our lakes to death,” Rulseh is hopeful for the future. With a few changes — and solutions he includes throughout the book — he believes the health of the lakes and the tourist-reliant communities around them can be saved.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” he tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “I can’t prove it, but I like to think there’s a beginning of a groundswell for being more protective of what we have in terms of the quality of the resources.”
People “need to change the social norm of how we treat the lakes,” he says. “We tend to — me included — come from a city environment. A lake lifestyle demands thinking differently about what we do with our property.”
As city dwellers, “We have lawns we like neat and tidy. Nature and the lakes don’t necessarily thrive on neat and tidy,” he continues.“We come up north to enjoy natural scenery — Woods along the shoreline, not to look at lawns that are really like a golf course. There’s a lot of sentiment for keeping the lakes more natural.”
Rulseh devotes much of the book to the reasons people are drawn to the lakes and the family traditions that spring up around them. The book is dedicated to his father, without whom, he writes, he “might never have found fascination with lakes,” and to his wife, who shares with him “a love of the Northwoods lake country.” It is also dedicated to his children and grandchildren and his hope that the lakes are there for them, “in as good or better condition than today.”
The book begins, however, by describing how this love of the lakes has made them inaccessible to many, as more and more lakefront property gets bought and developed. Small summer cabins hidden among the trees are being replaced by multi-bedroom second homes with landscaped lawns and clear-cut lots.
“People come here from urban areas all over the country where they have perfectly manicured lawns, and they want the same thing here,” Heidi Shaffer, a soil erosion officer for a conservation district in Michigan, tells Rulseh. “They remove the natural vegetation and plant grass lawns all the way down to the lake. And I say, ‘you came up here because of the beauty and the clean water, and now you’re replicating what you left behind?’ It really doesn’t make sense.”
The average price of a vacant lakefront lot has increased from $72,847 in 1999 to $115,531 in 2019, he notes. Lake frontage has nearly doubled in cost over that time, from $379 per foot to $641 per foot.
Aside from the rising prices, Rulseh writes that the increasing pace of development and a trend toward more dramatic changes to the environment around those homes has harmful effects on the lakes. With fewer trees near the shore, there are fewer fallen branches and logs in the water to provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life. With grass rather than native plants and trees, and a proliferation of concrete driveways, more harmful contaminants get washed into the lakes when it rains.
To prevent those harms, Rulseh suggests instituting a shoreline buffer between the edge of the lake and the beginning of the lawn: a strip of natural vegetation to protect the water.
“Lawn to the lake can be quite detrimental,” he says. “Kentucky bluegrass has done more damage to lakes than other invasive species just because planting a lawn all the way to the water’s edge allows so much runoff and phosphorus. … We need to keep our shorelines as natural as we can and think about what’s actually in the water too.”
In the background throughout the book is a changing climate and the required effort Rulseh believes is needed to make the lakes more resilient in the face of increased runoff during more extreme rain events, less ice cover during the winters and more variable water levels.
“The less impact humans have on the lakes, the more resilient those aquatic communities will be in adapting to the new climate,” retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources scientist Michael Meyer tells him.
Zoning rules and deregulation
The book also highlights an important tool for protecting the lakes that Wisconsin has done away with: shoreland zoning rules. Until 2015, every community in Wisconsin was able to establish its own zoning rules for lots along a lakefront. This allowed communities to adjust the minimum lot size to the needs of the lake, deny permits for structures too close to the water and require vegetative buffer strips — all ways that Rulseh argues could be used to prevent overdevelopment and pollution of the lakes.
In Wisconsin’s 2015-17 biennial budget, Rulseh writes, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, who is now a member of Congress, and state Rep. Adam Jarchow, who recently lost the Republican primary for attorney general, inserted a provision that changed the state’s rules for shoreland zoning. Instead of each community having flexibility, the Legislature imposed a single statewide minimum; local zoning rules could no longer require lake lots to be larger than 100 feet of frontage.
Tiffany and Jarchow said the change would bring uniformity to zoning and balance property rights with environmental concerns. Rulseh argues the change has had a harmful effect on lake quality. One Oneida County Board supervisor he anonymously quotes complains that his county, with more than 400 named lakes, has to follow the same rules as a county with “two mudholes and a slough.”
Keeping the lakes accessible
Throughout the book, Rulseh makes a forceful argument that the connection upper Midwesterners have with the lakes is important, and the power of that connection should be directed toward constructive solutions to the many — often man-made — challenges those lakes face. He laments the loss of the ability for most families to access a small summer cabin or lakefront resort to forge that connection. Yet, late in the book, he also writes that the proliferation of short-term rentals, through apps such as AirBnB, comes with its own threats.
He opens a chapter with a long note from a Vilas County resident who lives next door to a rental home. In the note, the man complains about the noise, the drinking, the mess that the guests leave. Rulseh writes that the septic systems of these homes often aren’t built to sustain year-round capacity of upwards of 10 guests at a time and that the inexperienced boaters that stay in these homes are a disruption to the local residents and the lake’s ecosystems.
But he says he thinks there’s a common ground to be found between keeping the lakes accessible to people other than the uber-rich and protecting against overuse from rowdy guests.
“I think some responsible regulation of short term rentals is essential in areas of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan,” he says.
He adds that there can be a balance between allowing vacation rentals and preventing disruptive guests: “It becomes abusive when these places are rented out to too large groups of people and people get rowdy. I’m sensitive that there should be ways for people to access the Northwoods experience.”
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