By Greg Seubert
WHITE LAKE – A plan to temporarily close a popular federal campground in northern Wisconsin stems from incidents involving a local property owner.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest announced plans in January to close the campground, located in northwestern Oconto County about 30 miles east of Antigo, until further notice due to safety concerns.
Those concerns involve a man who lives near the campground, according to Ed Janke, chief deputy with the Oconto County Sheriff’s Department.
“We did have a couple complaints of an individual walking through the campground and he had an assault rifle,” he said. “However, there was nothing illegal about what that individual was doing.”
Janke declined to identify the man.
“There is an ongoing investigation and there may be charges,” he said.
Deputies made contact last year with an armed individual walking through the campground.
“Campers had made some after-the-fact reports to Forest Service personnel, who then later reported some of those things to us,” Janke said. “We looked into those and there was nothing illegal. There’s nothing illegal about that gentleman walking through the campground.”
The campground is located in the town of Doty. Town Chairman Dick Kendall also declined to reveal the man’s identity.
“We acknowledge the fact that there’s a safety concern and the concern is verifiable,” he said. “Beyond that, I’ll leave that unanswered.”
The campground is currently closed and was scheduled to reopen May 1.
“I know there’s some concern for the safety of people, which I think needs to be in the forefront,” Kendall said. “I think the law enforcement officials for the county, National Forest Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are doing the correct thing to make sure that peoples’ safety comes first.
“If anything were to happen and somebody said, ‘We’ll, you knew about this and you didn’t do anything,’ I think this is an indication that law enforcement officials are doing the right thing,” he said. “They’re getting their heads together and making sure that the safety of area residents and those that visit the area are kept in the forefront. I think that’s a good idea.”
“We had a conservation with the local landowners and specifically talked about the threat and made sure that the chairman of the town of Doty clearly understand where we’re at,” Janke said. “They’ve been in the conversation from the start. We clearly know what the threat is and what the threat is pointing toward. We’re just doing the best we can.”
While the campground’s future is up in the air. Kendall and Janke didn’t rule out possibility of the facility opening later this year. That decision is up to the U.S. Forest Service, which owns and operates the campground.
“It’s hard for me to project what the outcome of some of the issues that are before us will be,” Kendall said. “If certain things corrected themselves to the point where those same law enforcement officials felt that the situation had been alleviated, I’m imagining that the campground could reopen. There’s a reservation system, so to reactivate that reservation system, get the word out and post something that says, ‘all clear,’ the stars would have to align correctly for that to happen.”
“We will be meeting with the Forest Service to re-evaluate where we’re at,” Janke said. “If we can maintain the perspective that we have right now and if we can get everything worked out, we will certainly support the Forest Service in re-evaluating the situation and opening the campground. We can’t release all the information we have for a number of reasons, but all things considered, we certainly support the decision that the Forest Service made until we can stabilize the threat with regard to risk.”
Kendall believes the closed campground will have an effect on the local economy.
“I’m not an economist, but if you figure two people in a campsite per night, that’s 200 people or more out there buying charcoal, propane, fishing tackle, eating at different establishments,” he said. “You would have to assume there’s an economic impact.”
The campground has been a popular destination for decades and is only and hour away from Green Bay and 90 minutes from the Fox Valley.
“If somebody says, ‘You know what? My cousin, nephew and brother-in-law have had sites 37, 38 and 39 for 20 years and now we can’t go anymore,’ that hurts,” Kendall said. “People say, ‘Well, you can go to Boot Lake (Campground) or one of these other lakes.’ Guess what? Somebody else has gone and reserved sites at those lakes. Everybody’s trying to make reservations with one of the campgrounds now pulled out of the system.
“The crush is during the months of May to September,” he added. “You pull that away and it destroys a lot of fun for a lot of people that are simply looking to come up and enjoy being outdoors.
“I’ve been town chairman for eight years now and I don’t ever remember a campground closing,” he said. “There might have been a closure because of a natural disaster for a little while while somebody cleans things up.” This is a rarity and it’s very unfortunate for the people that like to enjoy northern Wisconsin.”
Boulder Lake Campground’s closure comes three years after C-NNF officials closed several of the forest’s smaller campgrounds to cut costs.
“Most of those were because they were smaller and maybe not used as much,” Kendall said. “There were budget cutbacks. Everyone’s fighting for budget dollars and the state and federal level.
“This one (Boulder Lake) is the most popular one, it’s the biggest one, it’s been around for a long time,” he said. “It’s not a question of, ‘Gee, nobody’s using it, let’s shut it down.’ It’s a question of, ‘Everybody’s using it, let’s keep it open.’”
Greg Seubert covers sports for the Waupaca County Post, a Multi-Media Channels publication.