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Funding a forest

A community conservation effort

This is Wildcat Falls in the spring during a ‘green-up’ period. Conservationists are working to create the Wildcat Falls Community Forest, located near Watersmeet. (Photo courtesy of Rod Sharka)

WATERSMEET — The Wildcat Falls Community Forest project, a forestland conservation effort in Ontonagon County, has recently gained momentum with recent support from two sustainable forestry funds: the Upper Peninsula Sustainable Forest and Wildlife Fund of the Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula and the Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund.

The Wildcat Falls Community Forest project is spearheaded by Northwoods Alliance Inc., based in Conover, Wisconsin, and prioritizes sustainable forest management, public recreation and the protection of wildlife habitat, multiple freshwater ecosystems, and unique flora and fauna.

This 160-acre project features waterfalls and bedrock features on a trout stream, sustainable management of hardwood stands, old-growth characteristics in cedar-hemlock forest, impressive rock mounds and outcrops, ponds and vernal pools, and a wide diversity of woodland plants.

The recent foundation support moves the community forest closer to completion.

“We are grateful for the financial support of $2,500 from the Community Foundation of the Upper Peninsula, and $1,000 from the Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund,” NWA President Casey Clark said in a news release. “These community partners help us reach our goal of establishing the Wildcat Falls Community Forest and providing future generations the opportunity to visit this special place.”

This is an example of old-growth cedar in the proposed Wildcat Falls Community Forest. Conservationists are working to create the forest, located near Watersmeet. (Photo courtesy of Rod Sharka)

The U.S. Forest Services defines the Community Forest Program as a competitive grant program that provides financial assistance to tribal entities, local governments and qualified conservation non-profit organizations to acquire and establish community forests that provide community benefits. Community benefits include economic benefits through active forest management, clean water, wildlife habitat, educational opportunities and public access for recreation.

The Community Forest Program partners with qualified nonprofits, local governments and Indigenous tribal organizations, to establish publicly accessible forests that benefit local communities for recreational and conservation values.

Earlier this year, the USFS Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program recognized the value of Wildcat Falls, and ranked it fourth nationwide among 15 funded projects.

According to the NWA, Wildcat Falls has been described as having a 16- to 20-foot drop, beginning with a 6-foot drop, a 4-foot drop and three smaller cascades. The Northwoods Native Plant Society has identified a variety of wildflowers found on the property, including nodding trillium, blue flag iris, Canada yew, trailing arbutus and cutleaf toothwort.

Winter white-tailed deer yards under cedar stands are present, the NWA said.

The successful community forest grant for Wildcat Falls provides half the funds necessary to complete the project, and current fundraising efforts involve raising the required 50% match. Previous support for this project from the U.P. includes the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, Friends of Sylvania and dozens of citizens.

Through its Land Conservation Initiative, the NWA seeks out opportunities to protect important habitat that conveys community values and more.

“Being a community forest will be a permanent solution,” NWA board member Mary Hovel said.

Hovel hopes the project will be finished early in the fall of 2020.

“It will be open to the public and be a community forest,” said Hovel, who stressed a board will manage and oversee it.

The land in part will be managed for old-growth, she said, with the possibility of one parcel being managed carefully for timber away from the waterfalls hiking area.

That marked hiking trail, Hovel noted, will take trekkers past outcrops and waterfalls.

NWA already has experience in the community forest realm, having been a partner in the Pilgrim River Watershed Project in Houghton County and celebrating the completion of the 276-acre Pilgrim River Community Forest in 2014.

The Keweenaw Land Trust acquisition of this forest was made possible through a 50% acquisition grant from the USFS State and Private Forestry Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, with matching funds achieved through community fundraising and support from the J.A. Woollam Foundation, which in turn matched the community fundraising efforts.

Through the USFS Community Forest Program, NWA was awarded a 50% acquisition grant in 2017 to develop the 80-acre Springfield Bluffs Community Forest in central Wisconsin.

The community forest movement has caught on as well in Marquette County.

The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve has permanently protected some forest and river in northern Marquette County by creating the Yellow Dog River Community Forest. The group had been working since 2013 to acquire property along the river in strategic areas, some of which contain habitat for rare species as well as public access for recreation.

The purchase of this community forest was completed on Sept. 29, 2016. The project protects 688 acres of forest, wetland and granite mountains as well as 5.2 miles of rivers, streams and tributaries.

Another project in the works is the Dead River Community Forest. The Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy this summer received a $90,000 grant from the USFS Community Forest Program for the purchase of the property and has signed a purchase agreement with the McClure Basin Association.

The UPLC Steering Committee plans to host a snowshoe hike on the future of the community forest in early March, followed by the first of three public input sessions in April. Fundraising efforts such as on-site concerts as well as volunteer work to plan trails and conduct biological surveys, among other activities, will be kicked off at the first snow melt.

UPLC has until August 2021 to raise the final two-thirds of the cost of the project — $220,000 — through grants as well public donations and support from local businesses and groups. To support the project, visit. www.uplandconservancy.org/dead-river-community-forest/. To keep informed of upcoming meets about the project, email uplc@uplandconservancy.org.

For more information on the Wildcat Falls project, visit www.northwoodalliance.org.