Storm-Battered Apostle Islands Under Threat


Storm-Battered Apostle Islands Under Threat

Storm-Battered Apostle Islands Under Threat
Mar 07, 2018
Robert J. Nelson

Dotting the waters of Lake Superior near the northwest shoreline of Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore attracts visitors from across the nation and includes a varied collection of natural and cultural landscapes. An October 2017 storm battered the islands, leaving a string of damaged historic structures and features in its wake. Given the scale and scope of the damage, and the already strained budgets of the National Park Service, there is now serious doubt about whether the celebrated national lakeshore can fully recover.     

Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Bayfield, WI


Located just off the Bayfield Peninsula, the northernmost point of mainland Wisconsin, the Apostle Islands archipelago comprises 22 islands ranging in size from three to 9,900 acres. Established in 1970 and expanded in 1986, the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore—an area administered by the National Park Service—includes 21 of the clustered islands, a twelve-mile strip of mainland along the northwest shoreline of the Bayfield Peninsula, and the one-quarter mile of water surrounding each of these landforms. In total, the national lakeshore landscape encompasses 69,372 acres (of which 27,232 are submerged) across 450 square miles.

The archipelago was formed by glacial drift and is composed of sandstone deposited during the late Precambrian era, creating a base for the vast array of natural features present on the islands. Sea caves and cliff formations shape the landscape, which is host to a variety of unique habitats, including mature second-growth forest, clay bluff communities, lagoons and bogs, and sand dunes.

A net-mending crew of the A. Booth Fishery, based in the Apostle Islands, ca. 1900 - Photo by Emmanuel Luick, courtesy Bayfield Heritage Association

The islands have a long history of human habitation, with some archaeological evidence pointing toward activity as far back as 100 B.C. European traders arrived in the 1600s, and the landscape has since supported logging, quarrying, commercial fishing, and farming, with farm remnants still visible on Sand and Basswood Islands. Between 1856 and 1929, nine lighthouses—the most in any national park—were built on six of the islands. Hiking trails, tours of historic structures, boating, fishing, and wildlife-watching are all available to the public, as well as winter activities, including ice-fishing and snowshoeing. Madeline Island, the largest of the islands and the only one not administered by the National Park Service, is host to commercial and private property and is the gateway to the national lakeshore. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore contains eleven sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including a fishing dock (added in 1976), several camps (1977-1983), an historic district (2008), and the lighthouses (1977).


On October 27, 2017, a severe storm moved across Lake Superior, bringing with it with wind gusts of more than 60mph that lasted for several hours. The storm ravaged the islands for days, battering shorelines and beeches with relentless waves and unusually high surf. Many of the thirteen public docks constructed throughout the islands, including those on Devils, Sand, Outer, and Rocky Islands, sustained heavy damage, as did the Chequamegon Point light tower on Long Island. Several other historic structures, including the Devils Island boathouse, were all but levelled.

Devils Island Boathouse and Dock - Photo courtesy Robert J. Nelson, 2017

The brutal environment of Lake Superior is not the only challenge facing the park, which has suffered from deferred maintenance for decades. National Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker told Wisconsin Public Radio in a January 2018 interview, "We simply don't have the ability to do all the regular maintenance that's needed in order to keep up with it," adding that the park currently has some $8 million worth of maintenance items yet to be completed, including major work necessitated by the recent storm. The NPS’ annual budget for the park, roughly $3 million, has reportedly remained the same for more than a decade.

While there is an obvious need to prioritize all resources available to the Apostle Islands, recent public comments by the NPS imply that historic buildings (such as the Devils Island boathouse) that serve as little more than a “reminder of the past” may not be restored in a timely manner in the wake of the storm. To many advocates and supporters, those comments seem to signal that help is urgently needed from sources other than the traditional National Park Service budgeting process. New sources of supplemental funding and creative mechanisms for building restoration and maintenance are being proposed.           

The deferred maintenance that is slowly diminishing the Apostle Islands is emblematic of a much larger problem faced by the NPS, which, according to a recent study commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust, has a national backlog of deferred maintenance amounting to $11.3 billion. 

How You Can Help

The Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy (AIHPC) is a community-based non-profit organization established in 2006 and dedicated to the “preservation and interpretation of the many historic properties and cultural landscapes in the Apostle Islands region on northern Wisconsin.” The AIHPC spearheaded a letter, dated March 1, 2018, and signed by 40 local governments, businesses, and organizations, including TCLF, to Wisconsin's two U.S. senators, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin, as well as U.S. Representative Sean Duffy, who represents Northwestern Wisconsin. The letter asked the lawmakers to help secure money for the sorely needed repair work in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Contact the members of Congress to urge supplemental funding, or the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to ask for a larger annual budget for the Lakeshore.

U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (online contact form)
328 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-5323

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (online contact form)
709 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: (202) 224-5653

U.S. Representative Sean Duffy (online contact form)
2330 Rayburn HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 225-3365

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke (online contact form)
Department of the Interior
1849 C Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20240
Phone: (202) 208-3100

Ask the National Park service to explore additional ways to engage the local community through donations and volunteer support.

Park Superintendent (online contact form)
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore
415 Washington Avenue
Bayfield, WI 54814
Phone: (715)779-3397

Robert J. Nelson is a board member of the Apostle Islands Historic Preservation Conservancy.