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Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Face Extermination By Climate Change

As temperatures rise, Minnesota's North Woods will likely go up in smoke.
Backpacker_Magazine_Boundary_WatersBoundary Waters, Courtesy of Explore Minnesota Tourism

Now, after surveying the fire from the ridgetop, we head back out on the water and ride lake swells that wash ice-cold water over the rear gunwale, then land at a campsite in a protected bay on the mainland. The aircraft traffic to and from the plume is constant. That night, the fire casts a red glow in the southern sky. It’s not the cool green-and-white northern lights display I was hoping to enjoy, and the flames’ proximity creates a searing lightness in my gut that feels like the time four grizzlies wandered into my camp in Denali.

Day three brings a smoky haze that settles on the lake, socking us in. Our eyes sting, and our throats burn. The only thing that’s clear is the fact that we’re not going to get off Seagull Lake today.

Frelich doesn’t need to go far to show me more, though.

“Ah, I see we have aporrectodea in our midst,” the professor intones as I labor over breakfast. He means angleworms, and he identifies them by the Lilliputian mounds they create with their excrement. Anglers likely brought the worms to the area as bait. They don’t belong. There are no native earthworm species in the Boundary Waters.

But you can add worms to the list of nonnatives that will prosper here in a warmer climate. Worms change the soil’s chemistry in a way that devastates native plants and makes the ground more fertile for buckthorn–a particularly aggressive invader.

Walking about our campsite, Frelich is clearly wound up, a man in his element. He stops abruptly. “Whoa!” he exclaims. “This red maple grew 4 feet last year! This is definitely not a boreal climate any longer.”

Red maples are more common a few hundred miles to the south in central Wisconsin. Frelich says this tree could dominate a warmer and wetter Boundary Waters in 50 years, a prediction that sometimes elicits a “So what?” from people who wonder why it matters that different trees will grow here.

Frelich’s answer: We’re facing the unraveling of a complex ecosystem. Much of what makes this wilderness special for backcountry paddlers–the chance to spot a moose or lynx, catch a trout for dinner, or marvel at the splotchy artwork of caribou mosses and crustose lichens on a boulder–will be threatened as the Boundary Waters loses its rich forest mosaic of intermixed aspen and birch, spruce and fir, and three species of pines. This forest, which has stood here for more than 3,000 years and even inspired the Wilderness Act of 1964, could vanish within the next century. In its place will be a plain-vanilla forest, driven by deer, buckthorn, and earthworms–a place no more special, ecologically speaking, than a typical county park.

That’s why, among other things, Frelich has urged the Forest Service to reinstate fire as a natural force, igniting prescribed burns in areas not touched by wildfires. This, he says, will give some boreal tree species at least a fighting chance of surviving moderate climate change.

The Forest Service isn’t listening. In 2004, it issued a new 100-year management plan for the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters that disregards global warming altogether.

WE ARE STRANDED at our campsite for the next two days by screaming winds. After sundown, I don’t even need my headlamp–the bloody-orange luminance in the sky casts shadows. The fire is sweeping from south to east, past our entry point. Our cars back at the campground parking lot could very well be melted by the time we return.

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