Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Wildcat Falls protected as a Community Forest

WATERSMEET - Several groups involved with the effort to protect Wildcat Fallson the Scott and Howe Creek near Watersmeet are declaring success with the acquisition of property that will put the area under a conservation program.

In a Monday announcement, Joe Hovel of Northwoods Alliance Inc., and Partners in Forestry Cooperative, based in Conover Wisconsin, said the two organizations have worked to protect the Wildcat Falls area for more than 10 years. A recent conservation acquisition was completed with community support and the help of the U.S. Forest Service Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, he said.

"We have had a long history on this project," said Hovel, who led the conservation effort, adding that the widespread dedication was necessary to achieve this success. "Over a decade on one conservation project may seem daunting. However, 10 years is insignificant in the life of 150-year old trees and billion-year old rock. Protecting this special place for future generations was well worth the effort."

The 160-acre project is an ecological marvel, even for the Upper Peninsula where natural bounty is plentiful, he said. A challenging but short hike of less than a mile will reveal old-growth forest, a 25-foot waterfall on a trout stream with steep canyon walls, magnificent rock outcrops formed a billion years ago, and a plethora of understory flora and fauna including rich seasonal wildflowers, he said.

"The synergistic combination of unusual plants, a waterfall on a pristine trout stream, rock outcrops, old growth forest, vernal pools and more make a visit to Wildcat Falls a special experience," said Rod Sharka, a native plant guide with the Partners in Forestry Cooperative.

According to supporters, long considered a special place by generations of visitors, the property was an isolated part of the Ottawa National Forest for decades. About 12 years ago, the Forest Service initiated a land trade that included this tract.

Due to its isolated location, this property was to be swapped for increased acreage to help simplify forest boundaries, Hovel said. Conservationists opposed the trade over a period of years, and also developed a strategy to protect the ecological features and preserve access for the public. An interim conservation buyer negotiated a purchase with the trade recipient, and approached Northwoods Alliance about finding a permanent and publicly beneficial conservation solution.

Northwoods Alliance had the experience with the U.S. Forestry Service Community Forest Program and identified this program as a possible avenue to establish a Wildcat Falls Community Forest. The organization started fundraising for the 50% financial match to the Community Forest Program.

In very early 2018, the first of several significant grant awards was secured to complete the project. In spring of 2019, the Forestry Service Community Forest Program ranked the Wildcat Falls proposal fourth in the nation of its 15 funded priority projects, which assured the grant and helped to achieve the matching fundraising.

By mid-2020, the Wildcat Falls fundraising effort wrapped up with over 100 individual donations ranging from $10 up to $30,000. The project gained financial grant support from Friends of Sylvania Wilderness, John C. Bock Foundation, James D. & Jane P. Watermolen Foundation, Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, James E. Dutton Foundation, Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula, Copper Country Trout Unlimited, Johnson Foundation at Wingspread and the Weyerhaeuser Community Fund.

"We are very grateful to the community and all contributors who have assisted in bringing this incredible project to conclusion," said Casey Clark, president of Northwoods Alliance. "As a next step, we now encourage public input into developing the Wildcat Falls Community Forest management plan."

Northwoods Alliance is seeking community input into the final decisions in the Community Forest Plan. Under the Community Forest program, a project must display community benefits, and it is essential to develop a plan which defines these uses while protecting the unique ecological resources of this project.

This makes the community input important in establishing the guidelines of the Community Forest. For more information and to comment on the Plan, please see northwoodalliance.org and partnersinforestry.com.

-Tom LaVenture

Daily Globe