Climate impacts to tourism and outdoor recreation in Bayfield, Wisconsin

David Eades is the former executive director of the Bayfield Chamber & Visitor Bureau.

What climate change impacts are you seeing in the region?

Climate change thus far has been positive in some ways. The apple orchards have told me the apple growing season aligns better with the festivals now. The longer season may also help with more crops and different varieties that are now able to grow here.

Ice cover on the lake, however, has had a large impact that is causing issues, both for tourism and the local economy. For example, the ferry business model is designed to shut down every year for maintenance. If they can’t do that, it’s problematic. In the winter, the passengers are mostly locals going back and forth on the island and the revenue is not sustainable. Historically they would be able to drive back and forth on their own. For tourism, it’s been an issue with the lack of accessibility to the lakeshore and the ice caves in the Apostle Island National Lakeshore. What once were accessible every few years are now accessible every five to 10 years.

Shorter winters have led to shifting schedules for outdoor activities. Photo credit: Travel Wisconsin

The lack of ice cover and the warming of the lake is causing issues with fishing, which has a tourism impact but it’s probably more of an impact on commercial fishing. There are new limits on how many you can catch and how big things are, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily climate change related or how they’ve been managing the resource.

Another huge impact for us has been on our trail systems that are being impacted greatly by shoreline erosion. One of our iconic trails has been out for two years now with a multi-million price tag to fix it, if it should be fixed at all. Houses on the shore are not one hundred feet away from the shore but on the edge of a cliff. There are a lot of shoreline issues like that.

Storm events are problematic in June and July. There have been some crazy storms. The severity of those events has clearly increased. In response, we have been expanding our trail systems here and rerouting things more inland.

Winter has been shorter. It’s hard because last winter was a huge winter here. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was not a lot of tourism. This year was a very short winter. The shorter winter is shifting things. Fat tire and mountain bike trails are becoming hugely prevalent here. While all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are also very popular, we don’t really do snowmobile trails here. There hasn’t been a reliable snowmobile trail in Bayfield in 15 years. It’s more silent sports here.

Five years ago, we would have been talking how horrible low lake levels were. Now we are talking about how horribly high they are. So, there’s clearly impact.

How is your community adapting to the impact of climate change in the region?

We are prepping to connect up our existing trail system in the county so we can have the Birkebeiner Ski Race here instead of in Cable. We know that event is going to have to shift north. There have been a number of years where they just haven’t had enough snow in Cable, but we’ve had enough up here. We are looking at how to accommodate our ski trail system to what they need.

We have an Apple Festival here. There’s a Blueberry Festival in Iron River. Bayfield used to have the largest strawberry production in the nation back in the ’30s. We still are the berry capital of Wisconsin. We produce more berries than anywhere else. Both variety and quantity of organic berries. I don’t know if you can pinpoint invasive species to climate change but there’s been a fly here that’s been devastating to the berry crop. I don’t know if that’s climate change related so much as us shipping things all over the world without thinking about what we are doing.

Businesses are shifting and accommodating. For example, 15 years ago there were three different companies that did dog sled rides. Now there’s one. There were no companies that did winter biking, now there’s two.

Apostle Islands National Shore has been impacted. It’s been hard to get to the islands because the high water levels combined with severe weather events have damaged so many of the docks. You can still tour the islands and take rides and go on cruises, but there’s a number of the popular islands, like Devils and Michigan, where you just can’t dock anymore until they fix the damage. The delay in getting them repaired is having economic repercussions through the park system. We are adjusting. We always will. We have a little microclimate here and we will see what happens.

Access to the ice caves, when it happens, is an anomaly. They have only been accessible three or four times in the twenty years since I’ve lived here. It was the advent of social media that made them so big and go viral. Before that people knew that they were open but no one ever came the way they did in the winter of 2013-14. That winter we had 138,000 people visit. The following winter, 2014-2015, nearly 40,000 came in nine days. The caves haven’t been accessible since. While it was happening, we got together and decided let’s not change our marketing to push these because we know it probably isn’t going to happen again. We were cautious in how we promoted them.

I’m currently focused on the algae blooms. It’s a new thing to have algal blooms on Lake Superior. Blooms never happened before the warming of the water. I’m concerned about how the blooms will affect the beaches. Right now, it’s a tiny spot but it won’t stay tiny forever.

In general, we’ve had way more beach closures here because of E.coli issues. Those issues may be related to the effects of the storm events in Washburn and Ashland. Their infrastructure can’t handle the water so they have these huge sewer overflows into the lake. When that happens, it has a huge impact. Overflows are caused directly by these huge storm events dumping so much water so fast onto a one-hundred year-old system that wasn’t designed to handle that capacity.

Do you have hope for the future?

We are kind of shifting our economic and tourism activity like we have always done. First, we focused on forestry, then mining brownstone, then agriculture, then tourism, and now it’s a different kind of tourism. Maybe in the future we will become the epicenter of living where you are the happiest, getting some highspeed broadband, and working wherever you want, independent of industry. Bayfield is the first county in the nation to be broadband ready.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.