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The Perfect Storm?

One of this summer”s blockbuster movies was The Perfect Storm — a story about a tremendous hurricane that pounded the Atlantic seaboard and changed the lives of thousands of people. Here at Kemp Station we had a storm of our own. And although it wasn”t a hurricane, it significantly changed life around here.

On August 14 a violent storm ripped through the Northwoods. Kemp Station lay directly in its path and for more than 30 minutes winds howled in excess of 75 mph. In its wake, the storm left hundreds of snapped, shattered and toppled trees. The good news is that nobody was hurt, there was only minor building damage (the carport will have to be razed), and large numbers of trees are still standing. However, the Station”s pristine appearance has definitely changed. Damage ranges from a maple tree that tipped up from its roots to a 5-acre patch of hemlock that was flattened.

The old-growth forest has long been the Station”s centerpiece. It defined Kemp Station, providing a glimpse of what large portions of northern Wisconsin looked like prior to European settlement. Walking through the old growth, particularly the hemlocks, you had the feeling that time stood still. It wasn”t difficult to imagine voyageurs or Native Americans tromping through similar forest hundreds of years ago. But the August storm shattered any illusion of permanence.

The fact is every forest, even old growth, is a dynamic community that is perpetually changing. Granted, most of the changes are subtle and escape our notice. But every now and then a major event like a windstorm or wildfire comes along.

Dr. Craig Lorimer, professor in the Department of Forest Ecology & Management at UW-Madison, noted windstorms like the one that hit Kemp Station are probably “the major recurrent physical force” in shaping the development of old-growth forests in northern Wisconsin. He also observed that these forces, called natural disturbances by ecologists, occur every 60 to 100 years. That”s relatively common in the life of a 300-year-old tree.

A frequent question among recent visitors is, “What are you going to do next?” At this point we are still assessing the damage and talking with researchers. Most likely we will clean up the fallen trees along the roads and around the buildings, and remove those trees that pose a hazard to human health or property. The area around the campfire ring was hit particularly hard and we will have to pull stumps and do some major landscaping there.

But for the most part, the forest will be left as is. Kemp Station has a legacy of being a unique scientific area. It provides an important benchmark of the natural conditions and processes that characterize old-growth forests. Indeed, several researchers have already contacted us, excited about the opportunity to study nutrient cycling, re-vegetation, and wildlife habitat under these new conditions. And instructors are keen, too, to show students nature”s raw power and its inherent resilience.

It remains to be seen whether the August 2000 windstorm was perfect or not. But one thing we can be certain about, it”s all part of the natural process.