from the Spring 2012 feature story in Michigan Nature magazine (with updates)
Stunning vistas of Lake Superior. Rugged shoreline harboring secluded sandy beaches. Hidden inland lakes glittering in the sunlight. Remote old-growth forests with towering, cathedral-like canopies.
Few places in the Midwest offer the natural beauty and solitude found in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula.
The Michigan Nature Association has been working to protect the splendors of “Keweenaw country” since 1973. After decades of hard work by volunteers and generous support from donors, MNA currently owns approximately 20 nature sanctuaries along the peninsula, protecting a spectacular array of habitat types and rare species.
Given its name by the Ojibwa Indian tribe meaning “a place of crossing,” Indigenous people inhabited the remote region as early as 7,000 years ago. It was these native tribes that began the copper culture so commonly associated with the Keweenaw. Along with Isle Royale National Park, the Keweenaw is the only place in the country with evidence of prehistoric mining by Native Americans.
Industrial mining began in the 1840’s and the area quickly became one of the nation’s leaders in copper exports, but the industry declined and the old mining shafts and remaining ghost towns now add a unique sense of history to the natural beauty that characterizes the Keweenaw. The mining legacy endures in both positive and negative ways. The Keweenaw National Historic Park was established in 1992 to celebrate the life and history of the Keweenaw Peninsula. But stamp sands left behind from those mining operations now threaten important spawning grounds for fisheries and other important natural features.
A Rich Natural Heritage
The Keweenaw’s distinctive geologic past and location now make it an ideal habitat for a variety of wildlife. Forming one of the Great Lakes flyways, the Keweenaw is a crucial stop for thousands of raptors traveling north in the spring and south in the fall. Bald eagles, hawks and peregrine falcons can all be seen during their migratory journeys in the Keweenaw. Birds share the habitat with larger mammals such as black bear, moose, wolf and bobcat, showcasing the ecological diversity that can be found in the peninsula.
MNA’s Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary remains one of the most extraordinary sites for visitors to explore untouched Keweenaw wilderness. Saved from logging in the 1970s, the first 160 acres acquired in 1973 have grown to slightly over 570 total acres. Those who visit can immerse themselves in one of the largest stands of old-growth eastern pine in the Midwest, with trees reaching up to 125 feet tall and five feet in diameter. Copper mine pits dug three to four thousand years ago by Native Americans can also be spotted off the sanctuary’s Cathedral Grove trail if hikers look closely.
Much of the rock material found in the peninsula was created by ongoing volcanic activity about 1.1 billion years ago during the Mid-Continent Rift, which left behind layers of thick rock that are exposed in the northern reaches around the Keweenaw. The basin that was created from this rift eventually formed current-day Lake Superior. This massive syncline was filled with sediment and now separates the rock found on the Keweenaw from Isle Royale, which is composed of the same material.
More recently, after the last ice age more than ten thousand years ago, retreating glaciers carved out the many interesting hills and features that can be seen on the Keweenaw today. And sea stacks and cave structures formed by the powerful glacial lakes left behind can be seen throughout the peninsula, including MNA’s Grinnell Memorial Nature Sanctuary.
Protecting a Scenic Treasure
Northeast of the towering Estivant Pines is the Keweenaw Peninsula’s storied Brockway Mountain Drive, the highest road between the eastern Alleghenies and the Black Hills of South Dakota. The steep cliffs and stunning views of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, make this one of the most scenic stretches of road in America. And as the road reaches the summit of Brockway Mountain, there is often more to see than Lake Superior. Raptors, which can be viewed flying at eye level, are among the tens of thousands of birds that migrate through the area.
MNA now owns six natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive, including the 150-acre James H. Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary adjacent to the summit of Brockway Mountain. Tucked away in the Klipfel Memorial Sanctuary are rare plants found only on the Keweenaw, like the heart-leaved arnica. Once privately held, the summit of Brockway Mountain itself is owned by Eagle Harbor Township as part of an ambitious conservation plan for the area.
Public and privately-owned natural areas along Brockway Mountain Drive not only conserve land but promote tourism, the mainstay of the local economy. Unfortunately, the scenic vistas so important to the Brockway Mountain experience could be negatively impacted by the siting of a proposed cell phone tower next to an MNA nature sanctuary. In addition, migratory birds, such as eagles, falcons, and hawks, could suffer increased mortality rates, and running electrical lines across the landscape could also cause further loss of habitat for rare plants and wildlife. The Eagle Township Board denied a special use permit for the tower in September 2021, but that may not yet be the end of that issue should tower proponents try to find ways around local zoning.
The Keweenaw Peninsula is a special place, with special people. They believe in conservation and practice it in countless ways. MNA is proud of the many relationships and partnerships we have forged in the Keweenaw over the years as we have worked together to protect critical habitat, strengthen local communities, and prepare the next generation to meet the challenges ahead.
And we are just getting started. …
As MNA celebrates our 70th Anniversary in 2022, we look forward to protecting habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species in the Keweenaw Peninsula and other exceptional lands throughout the state. Land acquisitions on and around Brockway Mountain have been ongoing, most recently with an additional 42 acres on Brockway and a 60-acre addition to the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary, increasing the sanctuary to 570 acres and adding a half-mile of frontage on the Montreal River—one of Michigan’s cold-water rivers that provides critical spawning grounds for trout and habitat for other aquatic species.
As part of a multi-agency partnership, MNA also supports the effort to secure nearly 16,000 acres of land for the public trust for habitat protection and recreational use. The Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition—a 300-plus member organization of individuals, businesses, and recreation, conservation, and community organizations—is currently working to have the land purchased using Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars. If successful, the campaign would secure permanent, public access to these recreational and conservation lands that are now in private ownership and at risk for development.
But it is not just the conservation and recreation values that inspire Keweenaw residents to act. “There’s a soul that exists here… and at the heart of that is the wilderness,” explains Keweenaw resident and photographer Steve Brimm in a video that MNA created with the help of award-winning videographers Fauna Creative.
MNA is proud to be part of protecting the splendors of Keweenaw country. The work that we do would not be possible without the incredible support of our members, donors, and the generations of individuals who have helped us achieve our mission. And we look forward to continuing this work in the future, across the state, to protect Michigan nature forever, for everyone. You can join us at michigannature.org.