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7th Generation: Return of the Native: Restoring North Bass Island

Thursday, July 22, 2004 at 2:48 PM

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The state of Ohio has undertaken a project that's rarely attempted: take an island that's been used mostly for agriculture and turn it back into the natural place it once was. Right now they're ripping up the vineyards on North Bass Island to create a state park and nature preserve that will forestall development and recreate the habitat of a hundred years ago. Officials say it will offer visitors an island experience distinctly different from that found on the other Lake Erie Islands. But just how much tourism can a tiny island take? ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.

North Bass Island is about as different from South Bass Island, home of Put-in-Bay, as an island can be. They’re both part of the Lake Erie Island chain, but North Bass has no bars, no restaurants, no tourist shops, no shops of any kind, not even a general store. Pulling into the tiny harbor on the south side of North Bass, Ruth Stonerook delivers a warning about what the island does have plenty of - endangered Lake Erie water snakes.

Ruth’s husband Bud Stonerook was born on North Bass Island, just a mile south of the Canadian border. His great-grandfather helped build many of the island’s now-derelict houses. His grandfather helped build Perry’s monument at Put-in-Bay. Bud and Ruth were married here in 1963 and started their family, then moved to the mainland in search of better jobs. But now they’re back to stay. A few years ago, they built their retirement home on the west shore. And over this last winter and spring, they’ve watched as dramatic changes have unfolded on this tiny patch of green.

Bud Stonerook: We had 160 acres three years ago. And they’re going to maintain 40. And they probably tore out 50 and they’ve got about 40 to go yet.

Grapes have been grown here for more than a century, most recently by Cincinnati-based Paramount Distillers. At one time, more than half the island’s 704 acres were devoted to vineyards, producing wines with labels that still bear the island’s original name, Isle St. George. But that’s all changing now. This spring, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources bought most of North Bass for about $17.5 million. ODNR’s Scott Zody says the goal is to create a low-impact state park where nature - not culture - is the chief attraction.

Scott Zody: Our long-term vision is to offer to the public an island’s experience. Because if you look at all the Lake Erie Islands as a whole, Kelleys, South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, the goal is to offer a variety of recreational experiences.

Not that culture won’t be part of the North Bass experience. Along with 40-acres of grapes for making ice wine, Paramount will leave rows of Concord grapes for island women to make their traditional grape pies and jams. And Zody says some of the houses will remain, perhaps as rental cabins.

This twine house on the eastern shore where fishermen once made and mended their nets may also be salvaged. (The island chapel and one-room schoolhouse will stay, although the school may close down after the last two teenagers leave next year.) Only 17 people now live on North Bass, half the number of three decades ago. Stream ecologist Randy Sanders says the dwindling human population will make it easier to turn back the island’s ecological clock.

Randy Sanders: For two hundred years, it’s kind of been used - I won’t say abused - it was just part of how they developed that island. I mean, I think there’s no doubt at one time it was either wetland or forest.

Sanders says restoring the land will mean letting native vegetation grow. That should add habitat for the thousands of migratory birds that pass through the islands each spring and fall. But Sanders says large parts of this tiny island aren’t much altered and only need to be preserved.

Randy Sanders: I think the natural parts of the island that were probably least impacted, there’s some pretty large woodlots along the western half of the coast. And then of course, there’s Fox’s Marsh.

But returning an island to its natural state can be a tricky business. Karen Vigmostad with the Northeast Midwest Institute in Washington, D.C. studies Great Lakes Islands.

Karen Vigmostad: Islands are very, very different than the mainland. There’s a whole science of island bio-geography that strongly suggests that they are much more vulnerable. If we want to think about recreation for example, we have to think, well, we can’t hold very many people.

Vigmostad hopes the state will keep park development minimal. But she warns it is possible for restoration to go too far the other way, allowing wildlife to take over and wreak environmental havoc. That’s what’s happened on West Sister Island, Ohio’s only National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of nesting cormorants have destroyed much of the vegetation. But state officials say they’re hoping to create a balance between wildlife and human life. And that’s just fine with Ruth Stonerook.

Ruth Stonerook: This is stone beach. Want to go see the snakes?

It will be several years before the state has the money to build trails, primitive campsites, and a larger marina. Regular ferry service may also one day develop. In the meantime, the island is now open to daytime visitors. On North Bass Island, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

Additional Information

* Ohio Department of Natural Resources - Middle Bass Island State Park
* Karen Vigmostad - State of the Great Lakes Islands

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