Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center Aims to Be Poster Child of Sustainability & Collaboration

Aug 9, 2016

The center, in the midst of a major green makeover, resides west of Ashland and south of Bayfield and is nearly twenty years old.

With its sweeping 180 acres before him, US Forest Service program manager Jason Maloney beams as he watches a crew erecting the infrastructure to support four rows of solar panels - 100 kilowatts’ worth.

The work – and the effort to fund it - goes back ten years, to Maloney’s predecessor at the center.

"It took several years before we were able to obtain funding, which we did in a national competition in the Forest Service for capital improvement projects.  And the reason this one was selected was neat combination of energy efficiency retrofits on an existing structure and then alternate energy production to try to get us as close to a zero net state as possible," Maloney says.

The visitor center itself – which resembles the top slice of a lighthouse – opened in 1998. Maloney says its design fell just before a major turning point in construction engineering.

"It was kind of like the end of the old school and just before a lot of the new modern practices that are much  more sustainable caught on," Maloney says.

Workers insulating walls and tending to windows at the visitor center.
Credit Susan Bence

He said, with age, its 37,000 square footness developed a number of quirks.

"Like leaks where treated air, either warm or cold, can leak out and water can leak in," Maloney says.

But Maloney boasts the building and its grounds are poised to become a not only a sustainability showcase but a demonstration of partnership, with a capital P.

"We’ve got 25 natural gardens here, we've got a native seed orchard that's about an acre, and we've also agriforestry test's got a biomass grow demonstration with hybrid aspen," Maloney says.

The list goes on.

Maloney says the visitor center exists not because of the federal or state government, rather thanks to a committed group of local volunteers. It started with a distinct focus.

"The building was was actually designed around an archive that houses the State Historical Society archives for primary source materials  for eight of the  northern Wisconsin  counties," Maloney says.

He says the visitor center pulls together science and the humanities.

"And frankly that changes everything," Maloney adds, "when we cooperate on projects we're going across agency boundaries and because of the different skill sets that my colleagues bring from their different employers, we end up usually with a very rich tapestry."

Archivist Linda Mittlestadt
Credit Susan Bence

Inside the building archivist Linda Mittlestadt invites us into her domain. She watches over 8 northern Wisconsin counties worth of records, such as original manuscripts and genealogical records.

"This  is the archival storage area and you can see it's humidity and thermostatically controlled," Mittlestadt says.

She pulls out a massive ledger.  One of the handwritten records tells William King's story.

"1857 is the year he got his declaration of intention.....  Yeah that's one of the early ones. He came from Gothenburg Sweden, came on the Canadian Pacific Railway," Mittlestadt says.

It turns out, center director Jason Maloney wasn’t exaggerating about the rich tapestry of partnerships.

Taylor Tibbles is landowner outreach coordinator with My Lake Superior Northwoods. It's one of the initiatives sharing space in the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center.
Credit Susan Bence

In an office tucked in the visitor center basement we find Taylor Tibbles, who works with landowners on restoration and stewardship projects.

"I set up the landowner with a technician who actually does the visit and they talk with the landowners about their property goals or project goals," Tibbles adds, "We have a couple of priority species that we're focused on  - Sharp-tailed Grouse, Golden-winged Warbler, Brook Trout and Kirtland's Warbler - and then water quality is what we've tagged as  'slow the flow'."

Around the corner, we bump into Michaela Fisher, holding impressive red-handled steel loppers.

Intern Michaela Fisher is back for her second summer.
Credit Susan Bence

"Oh, I’m an intern here and I do a bunch of different things, I do a lot of interpretative programs for the public.... This year I'm going to be doing a love in the northern woods series, which focuses on different animals' courting methods," Fisher adds, "but I also do in ground stuff, like I'm doing right now, which is like weeding and maintaining the grounds."

The college student is back for her second season. Fisher is one of five interns here this summer.

What brought her back? Again, it’s the tapestry.

"I really like that there's a bunch of different organizations that work  here," Fisher explains.

They are: the U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Friends of the Center, Wisconsin Historical Society and the UW-Extension.

"And so you just a really cool blend of people working together and a lot of different personalities and because of that I think collaboration is a lot easier than if you were with just one organization," Fisher says.

Fisher says her job allows her the flexibility to do a number of different activities on any given day.

"We have a list of things we have to do, but most of the time he's (Jason Mahoney) is like just go do it.  So if I feel like I want to get out in the field, like today, but if I want to do research I can do that," Fisher says.

Last year Fisher helped right a grant for the visitors center.  "And I help manage the Facebook page this year, so I got to do a lot of different things.  That's really cool," Fisher says.

Director Jason Maloney says that’s the formula. Listen to people, point them in the right direction and set them free.