Our Mission is: "To continue the over 100-year presence of family heritage, culture and rich human tradition on Isle Royale; to assure the preservation of historic family dwellings; to enhance the experience of NPS staff and Park visitors by serving as authentic links to Isle Royale's rich human history."

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Families want to work with Park Service to retain use of cabins

Stuart Sivertson's grandfather began commercial fishing on Isle Royale in the 1890s.

For decades, Severin Sivertsen hauled in tons of lake trout, whitefish and herring from the reefs surrounding the island, which became a national park in 1940. Commercial fishermen and their families once lived on the island, as did miners, summer vacationers and the cottage crowd. Primitive cabins and camps once dotted the shores.

Today, the only permanent residents on the mostly wilderness island are moose and wolves. But the families of the island's settlers are hoping to forge a partnership with the National Park Service that would allow them to use the cabins their grandfathers built.

``We can help other people enjoy the island,'' said Sivertson, 65. He visits the island every summer, and enjoys working with the last active commercial fishery there.

About 30 members of the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association gathered in Duluth this weekend to begin forging a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to retain their place in history.

They argue that families who built primitive cabins on the island before it became a national park are part of the island's cultural history and deserve to stay.

The families also have something to offer the park, said David Barnum, president of the families and friends association. Barnum's great-grandfather built a summer home on the island in 1895.

``We offer a cultural connection'' to the island's century-old history, he said.

Almost all of the island's 140 primitive buildings meet the standard for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, said Liz Valencia, chief of interpretation and cultural resources at Isle Royale National Park.

Only a few, including the Rock Harbor Lighthouse and the John's Hotel, are listed.

While a listing on the national register doesn't guarantee permanent protection for the cabins and other buildings, it does trigger an automatic review if any governmental agency proposes tearing them down, said Chris Morris, a preservation official for the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust believes the primitive cabins and buildings on Isle Royale are ``significant to preserve because they tell the story about who you are, and who were the people that lived there,'' Morris said.

The National Trust has proposed a three-pronged approach to work with the families and friends association in preserving the buildings, Morris said. They include educating the island's summer visitors about preservation options, working with the Park Service to develop a cultural resources management plan and conducting an in-depth study of buildings on the island.

The Park Service is in the midst of developing a wilderness management plan for the 45-mile-long sliver-shaped island about 20 miles off Minnesota's North Shore.

The plan was completed in July and is under advisement by the Park Service. It doesn't specifically address the primitive cabins or non-Park Service buildings.

When the national park was in the process of being created in the 1930s, people who lived on the island were given a choice: either sell their land willingly or the federal government would appropriate the land anyway, Valencia said.

Some people wanted to stay on the island, and the government offered them lifetime leases so they could still visit their family cabins.

But as the original leaseholders died, their families were left with a hodgepodge of special permits and conditional leases that continue today. There are about six lifetime leaseholders left of nearly 17 families that still visit the island, Barnum said. He would like the Park Service to create a standard set of leases.

The cabins, which have no running water or electricity, are used much the same way as they were 100 years ago. That's also a valuable historical connection, Barnum said.

And it's a shift from how park managers once regarded the cabins, Valencia said. The Park Service had a policy in the 1950s and 60s of destroying cabins, often by burning them down, when their owners died or left the island. Isle Royale was considered a wilderness, and the fewer buildings, the better.

Now, the Park Service sees things differently, Valencia said.

She hopes a partnership to preserve the primitive cabins can be created, and saw the meeting with the National Trust as a step forward.

It probably will be years, however, before a cultural preservation plan can be agreed upon, Valencia said.


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Last modified: June 28, 2007