The proceedings booklet for the September 2000 Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute workshop titled “Northern Forest Restoration: Shaping a Vision” opens with a lengthy excerpt from Michael Van Stappen’s essay “In Praise of Yellow Birches.”
Early in the excerpt, Van Stappen notes that before the Great Cutover, “giant yellow birches over a hundred feet tall and three feet in diameter were commonplace in our forests,” and he laments the fact that, other than leaders of the Menominee Nation, no one in the first half of the twentieth century “had enough foresight, or concern for future generations, to save even a mere thirty or forty thousand acres of pristine forest” in Wisconsin.
More brightly, the excerpt from Van Stappen’s essay concludes: “The restoration of a large tract of forests to an old-growth condition could someday begin right here in northern Wisconsin. . . . It will take public advocacy, political leadership, and a great deal of foresight and fortitude. But it can and should be done. For the yellow birch and for our children and their great-great-grandchildren, it must be done.”
Inspired by sentiments similar to Van Stappen’s, the Northern Forest Restoration: Shaping a Vision workshop was designed to be a call for action that would empower those committed to restoring forests in the Western Great Lakes region. The workshop was organized collaboratively by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum and Center for Restoration Ecology.
Three goals guided the structure and activities of the workshop: (1) identifying participants’ perceived needs for ecological restoration, (2) developing common language regarding restoration, and (3) defining important steps to encourage northern forest restoration.
The workshop began, as the published summary notes, appropriately in the forest with a guided field trip to view various northern forest types on the afternoon of September 27, 2000. That evening, David J. Mladenoff from the Department of Forest Ecology and Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison delivered the workshop’s keynote address, which included a tribute to Forest Stearns, an influential forest ecologist who had passed away in 1999, and a comprehensive history of the Northern Forest.
The remainder of the workshop included presentations and discussions focused on the meaning and practice of ecological restoration, northern forest restoration efforts underway at the time, and developing recommendations for future restoration efforts focused on northern forests. Fifty-three professionals with positions in academic institutions, natural resource management agencies, and nonprofits participated in the workshop.
Today, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute continues to support restoration activities, research, and educational outreach focused on northern forests through its Sigurd Olson Forest Ecosystem Internship. Funded for ten years beginning in 2019 by a donor committed to forest restoration, the internship compensates a Northland College student or recent graduate for twelve weeks of full-time work focused on forested properties each summer. To date, projects of the interns have included improving access to and surveying forests at the Mabel Cora Maxwell Nature Study Area, creating a Geographical Information Systems resource database focused on Northland’s forested properties, and developing a tree-climbing program to support research and education in the canopies of northern forests.