Star of the North
New center's roots in wilderness research run deep
“We have not yet acquired enough basic technical knowledge of wilderness to be able to deal confidently with the many problems of its perpetuation.” –F.B. Hubachek, Sr., introduction to the 1950 Quetico-Superior Wilderness Research Foundation progress report
By Becky Beyers
It was a momentous decision by Chicago attorney Frank Hubachek: to dedicate a portion of his recreational land in far northern Minnesota to natural resources research. He had owned the property, planted trees and encouraged research on it for more than two decades, but in 1948 he created a foundation and hired scientists and workers, put up buildings using timber harvested from the land, and began promoting the concept of restorative wilderness management.
Over the past 60-plus years, CFANS scientists have lived and studied at the site near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, wilderness co-existing with the Hubachek family’s retreat as the area evolved from a heavily logged, touristy vacationland to a quiet preserve where motors are prohibited and scientists can conduct research in an ever-changing forest. Last year, the remaining Hubachek family member with an interest in the property relinquished her rights and the university became the sole owner.
The 360-acre site on Fall Lake is being renovated to accommodate larger groups; the renovations include things like bringing septic systems and buildings up to code and expanding kitchen facilities to serve groups of about 20 people. If all goes as planned, the first undergraduate class will study on-site in August, says Linda Nagel, director of the Cloquet Forestry Center, and who oversees operations at the Hubachek Wilderness Research Center (HWRC).
The wilderness forest setting sets the new center apart. At Cloquet, for example, the forest and landscape have been heavily managed for decades. But at the Hubachek center, the trees have not been managed as they typically would for the timber industry, and many of the trees haven’t been disturbed at all since Hubachek’s workers planted them 80 or 90 years ago. “It’s a unique ecosystem, where you can learn about vegetation dynamics without that managed landscape,” Nagel says.
Recent research has included studies of how forests recover from fire, and how different kinds of trees and understory are affected by a changing climate. But the center provides the opportunity to do much more, and its capacity to house visiting scientists and students makes it more than just a research site. “There are a lot of research questions to ask in the boreal ecosystem,” Nagel says. “But people who do research there will get an experience in addition to knowledge.”
The HWRC has a list of mandatory things that have to be done in order to house students and researchers, Nagel says, along with a wish list for future renovations. Many of the buildings were moved to the site from another location, so need repairs. Most are only usable for three seasons, so decisions will have to be made about how best to use or replace them. A to-be-hired research scientist will help build the center’s capacity for more research, teaching and outreach, Nagel says. For now, the site is not open to the public, but the outreach part of its mission is important; eventually there may be ways to allow visitors on the center’s trails, for example.
While most research at the site has been forestry related in recent years, that wasn’t always the case and isn’t likely to be in the future. Isabel Ahlgren, who with her husband, Cliff, lived and led research at the center until the early 1990s, has written about the history of those years and recalls visiting scholars studying everything from the sociology of canoe country vacationers to mouse habitat to how bees and mosquitoes survived in the far north.
While many topics are ripe for study at the site, water-related research on the area’s dozens of lakes seems like a natural possibility, says Carrie Pike (’13–Ph.D., natural resource science), research associate at the Cloquet Forestry Center who’s been heavily involved as the center ownership transfers to the university. “If you can portage, you can get to a lot of lakes with potential research topics,” she says.
She credits the Ahlgrens—Cliff was hired by Hubachek in 1948 to begin research at the site, and Isabel married and joined him in 1953—with building a tradition of solid scientific research at the center. “They were in the right place at the right time, and they were so motivated,” she says. Hubachek “brought in people who were the opposite of lazy, and it was a wonderful confluence of vision and science.”
Because of its geography and ecology, the center has hosted scientists and students from all over the world, especially while the Ahlgrens were on site. Now, as part of the college’s network of research and outreach centers, it has the potential to thrive again as a hub of natural resources research.
“The wonderful thing about the Hubacheks is they weren’t scientists, but Frank realized this was bigger than him. He saw the opportunities for research, and realized it was beyond what he could do on his own,” Pike says. “It was incredibly visionary—he could have just turned it into a highfalutin resort. Embracing science like that is just not common these days.”