“It is a way to give back,” explained conservation easement donor Carol Ritter. “It is an acknowledgement that the land has a value that goes a lot deeper and is more meaningful to us as a group of human beings than just the monetary value of the land to individuals.”
Carol and her husband, Michael Eaton, granted a perpetual land protection agreement to the Northwoods Land Trust (NWLT) on 82 acres of land in the towns of Cassian and Lake Tomahawk in Oneida County. According to NWLT Executive Director Bryan Pierce, the conservation project preserves the natural shorelines on two “wild lakes,” plus additional frontage on another, heavily-developed lake.
“With the modernization of society, we have lost a lot of our connection to the land, and I think that is regrettable,” she continued. “Getting some of that back, however we can, is important to who we are.”
Michael is from San Diego, Calif., which is where he and Carol met. Carol grew up in central Michigan near Midland. “We moved here for a pathologist’s job for me,” said Ritter, “at Howard Young for a couple of years and then at Saint Mary’s Hospital.”
It took time for Ritter and Eaton to acquire all of the land they chose to protect. “We were thinking of building and were looking for acreage,” noted Eaton. “We purchased the first 60 acres in 1982, a couple of years after we moved to Wisconsin in 1979.
“We wandered into a real estate office in Lake Tomahawk,” he continued. “The Realtor kept his eyes and ears open for us. He knew of an older guy who owned land here and was trying to sell. He had split up all the lots on Alva Lake, but then was going to sell the back acreage-that was 60 acres. He also had one more lot left that wasn’t really buildable on Alva. He made us a deal that we couldn’t resist.”
“Plus, he wrote a land contract,” added Ritter. “We didn’t have a great deal of money at the time, so that seemed like a good deal. We were living nearby in Hazelhurst, and we paid him off in three or four years.”
“I would go out periodically and hike around on the land and walk with the dogs,” said Eaton. “I came to her one day and said, ‘either we build on it or sell it.’ In 1994, we started construction and we moved in July first.”
They also added more land. Their Realtor contacted them and said he’d heard the land next to them was up for sale and that it might be bought by some developer. The couple bought the land. “We didn’t really want the little cottage, but it came with the 20 acres,” said Ritter. “The generation that owned it got old, and their kids didn’t really want it anymore.”
The 20-acre addition added more than 1,100 feet of natural shoreline frontage on Liege Lake. Liege Lake has only a few residential structures on it. A large section of the lake shoreline is included within the Oneida County Forest. Pierce noted that Liege Lake was identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a “wild lake,” warranting enhanced protection for its outstanding fish and wildlife habitat and natural scenic beauty. The lake provides exceptional habitat for a diversity of wildlife species including many types of waterfowl, beaver, otter, bald eagles and osprey. Like many lakes in the region, the water levels have suffered from nearly a decade of drought conditions.
The property also includes approximately 1,600 feet around the entire shoreline of a small, roughly five-acre, un-named bog pond. This wild lake is also excellent habitat and utilized by many species of wildlife.
In addition, the conservation agreement protects a small lot with about 185 feet of frontage on Alva Lake, which is otherwise heavily developed. The cobbled rock and firm bottom near shore habitat provides spawning areas for several fish species with public recreational value.
The protected property features northern hardwood and conifer forest habitats along with wetlands. Red oak, white pine, red pine, balsam fir, aspen, paper birch and other tree species are common. The property is adjacent to Oneida County Forest land on the south and west sides, as well as on Liege Lake. The site also includes a bit of history from the early logging days.
“The tote road has been there since before we bought it, part of an old narrow-gauge railroad,” said Ritter. “That is how I would access the property when I was out in the winter time with the dogs.”
Eaton and Ritter have most enjoyed the solitude and wildlife, “especially in the winter when there is really nobody around,” said Ritter. “When you go outside, it is absolutely quiet. Because we are on the opposite side of the road from Alva Lake, most of the lake noise goes away from us, so it is still pretty quiet in the summer time.
“I am a great walker and hiker,” she added. “I put on five or six miles minimum a day. Some is on the roads, but a lot of it is through the trail system on the tote road and on county land. We put on a lot of miles snowshoeing in the winter time, which is nice because I can just go out my back door and rarely meet anyone.
“You see the most amazing things and learn things about wildlife just by observing,” she noted, “like going around the bottom of a tree during the wintertime and wondering why the tree is staining the snow like this? Those are just the kinds of things I like to do.”
“We’ve seen wolf tracks and coyotes come through the yard quite a lot,” Eaton said. “We have fishers, bears and lots of deer. The fox comes right up to the house to check us out. Some years we’ve had quite a few otter playing on the pond when there was a lot more water, going up and down through holes in the ice. For quite a while, we had a whole crowd of beaver until the drought really took over and they had to move.”
“Turtles come up in the spring from the pond, including mama snapping turtles who try to scrape out a nest for laying eggs next to the patio,” said Ritter.
“Soon after we moved here, we found a loon in our yard that we had to rescue,” Ritter said. “He was sitting on our grass. Mike got on fireplace gloves and a big box, and the loon raised up on its legs and charged him with its pointy beak, right into the box. Mike took the box down to Liege Lake and let it go. We’ve seen pileated woodpecker babies in their holes and broadwing hawks which must nest nearby.”
In future years, they’d like to see higher water levels come back in the pond and lake, but “it can look just like it does now as far as I’m concerned,” said Eaton.
“It would be OK if it closed in more too, if things grew back up into more of the building site so it became absorbed back more by the natural land,” Ritter said. “We have partially settled the area, so it is not like it is totally wild. We have changed it. But in retrospect, we’ve tried not to change it a great deal. The vast majority of the property is unchanged.”
Although the terms of the conservation agreement allow for forest management with an approved plan, Ritter and Eaton have no plans for harvesting timber. “I’d hate to see forestry on the land between the two building zones – that would bother me I think, as it would change the whole character of it,” said Ritter. “The other 40, maybe.
“I used to walk all the time along the tote road, and I think that is how I got interested in preserving it,” she added. She explained that she saw Oneida County crews come into the adjacent county forest land to do a timber harvest. “That is when they clear cut it and put it back into pine plantation. I thought, ‘Let’s not do that to our land.’ That is when I decided I didn’t want anything done to it. I didn’t know about the land trust until quite a bit later, but that is why we didn’t do anything to the property in the interim.
“I cut an article out of the newspaper (about the Northwoods Land Trust) a couple of years ago,” Ritter continued. “I kept it next to my computer for almost a year before I actually looked it up on the website. I ended up talking to Pat Dugan (who donated conservation land on Squash Lake to NWLT).”
“We wanted to keep it from being developed,” said Eaton. “That is the total reason. It doesn’t need to be divided up.”
“How many other people have a place they have gone to for generations,” Ritter asked, “and all of a sudden, the next year they go there and someone is knocking the trees down and scraping the dirt off to put up a mini-mall or something? I think that attitude is changing now. I’m hoping it is.
“The whole Northwoods does not have to be built up,” she said. “If we don’t at least slow the trend, the Northwoods won’t exist anymore. Every little bit that people can contribute, I think that is fine.”
Regarding granting a conservation agreement, “If it feels right, do it,” said Eaton. “It is hard to wrap your head around what you are doing, because everything is so geared in our society to do things always for profit. But it doesn’t really need to be for profit. It can be where you are satisfied with what you have and that is it.”
“To me the land has a greater value as a whole,” added Ritter. “I’m assuming there are other people like me out there who would agree, and who would appreciate having something left.”
Pierce noted that under a conservation easement, the land remains privately owned and subject to property taxes. The land can be sold or passed on to heirs, but whoever owns the land in the future must abide by the terms of the agreement. The land trust is responsible for annually monitoring the conservation values with the landowners.
The Northwoods Land Trust is a nonprofit conservation organization that works in a six-county region of northern Wisconsin including Oneida, Vilas, Forest, Florence, Iron and Price counties. The land trust is a member- and volunteer-supported organization. For more information on the Northwoods Land Trust and voluntary conservation options for private landowners, contact Pierce at (715) 479-2490 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.