MINNEAPOLIS - It's a well-preserved gem of boreal forest, around 350 acres fronting two lakes on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It long belonged to a wealthy Chicago family with a deep love of the wilderness. Now the land and its tall pines near Ely are under the control and ownership of the University of Minnesota, which plans to use it for research on climate change's effects on northern forests and for teaching classes.
The Hubachek Wilderness Research Center is primitive and needs some work, such as a new septic system, before it can host classes or small conferences. The laboratory is basically just a cabin. And none of the cabins dotting the property is insulated, so it's mainly a three-season facility. But it has a rich history, and the university hopes to build its capacity slowly but surely.
"It's a wonderful place for people to come and study and reflect and experience the wilderness," said Linda Nagel, director of operations at the university's Cloquet Forestry Center and the overseer of the Ely facility.
The Hubachek center sits on Fall Lake, a popular spot for entering the BWCA, and has a spectacular view over Browns Lake, which is just outside the wilderness area. It's dotted with rustic but meticulously maintained little log cabins that Frank B. Hubachek Sr. moved from a larger property he owned on Basswood Lake before it was incorporated into the BWCA and turned back into wilderness.
"It feels like you're at an up-north family resort. It's very lovely," said Peter Reich, who has held the university's Hubachek chair in forest ecology and tree physiology since the early 1990s and has been the lead researcher using the facility in recent decades. He said it gives researchers ready access to the Boundary Waters but also permits them to conduct more manipulative experiments that aren't possible within the BWCA.
The center is the legacy of Hubachek, a Chicago lawyer who was a frequent visitor to the area and an early leader in efforts to protect the Quetico-Superior wilderness region, which eventually became the BWCA. University forestry researcher Carrie Pike said the story goes that Hubacheck was canoeing on Basswood Lake in the 1930s when he found out that loggers planned to cut down a large stand of timber there.
Instead, Hubachek bought the land, and it became the site of his first research center in 1948. To oversee it, he hired Cliff and Isabel Ahlgren and started a foundation to fund their work. Pike said the Ahlgrens were given adjunct faculty positions with the university and published hundreds of papers before they retired.
As efforts to designate the Boundary Waters as a federally protected wilderness area gained steam in the 1970s, Hubachek donated his land on Basswood Lake to the U.S. Forest Service. He had the buildings hauled whole over the winter or reassembled on his new property a few miles away on Fall Lake and purposely kept it rustic. Hubachek died in 1986, but his son Bill and daughter Midge shared their father's passion and provided funding to keep the center and its research going. Bill Hubachek eventually decided that the land should be donated to the university, Pike said.
The turnover from the family to the university has been a long process that really began in the 1990s, said Pike, who helped oversee the final transition. Bill Hubachek, like his father a Chicago lawyer, died in 2011. The last of the paperwork was completed this fall. Besides the land, the family gave the university an endowment to keep the center running and provide some funding for research.
Much of Reich's early work there dealt with how fire affects forest ecology. But now a major focus of his work at the Hubachek and Cloquet centers is a project called B4WARMED. The researchers are studying how climate change, human land use and invasive species combine to affect northern forests.
Reich and his colleagues planted 10,000 small saplings from many different species in plots in both locations. They use infrared heat lamps and heating cables in the ground during the non-winter months to determine which trees thrive and which ones suffer when temperatures go up by, for example, 2 degrees or 4 degrees centigrade. They're finding that conifers such as spruce and fir don't fare well, he said, but hardwoods such as maples and oaks grow better and are likely to replace them. And they're also researching how the mix of species in the forest might change if the climate also gets drier as it gets warmer. On the positive side, he said, is they now think that white pines might be able to cope with moderately warmer temperatures as long as it stays wet.
The work is important for understanding Minnesota's forests in particular and more broadly for the Great Lakes forests of the United States and Canada. Reich said. But they're also collaborating with researchers from around the world to broaden their understanding of how rising temperatures affect all forests. He said they're learning that trees in tropical and far northern climates might not experience temperatures way outside their normal ranges as global temperatures rise. But he said trees in middle latitudes such as Minnesota probably are going to be at higher risk of heat damage because they already experience wide seasonal temperature swings, so their margins of safety aren't as high.
University officials are still working on a vision for how best to use the center going forward and they're thinking about what additional facilities might be needed, Nagel said.
"We're not going to put a 100-person auditorium on it. It'd be a classroom for 20 people," she said.
Reich said the school held off on deciding the details of exactly how to use the center and what changes to make out of respect for the Hubacheks because they didn't want the family to feel like they were being rushed off land their family had enjoyed for decades.
"They should get three cheers for what they've done for the woods and the university," Reich said.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.