2017-08-17 / Outdoors

Port Oneida offers 1,000 acres of mowed farmland; tops Smokey Mts.

By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

Open fields are not a natural state in most of Leelanau County.

They require clearing and then maintenance, which is what occurs each summer in the Port Oneida Historic District.

“The easiest way to keep trees and shrubs — woody plants — out is to cut whatever is there and mow them down,” said Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore deputy superintendent Tom Ulrich.

Without such maintenance, the agrarian setting that drew more than 4,000 people to the Port Oneida Fair would soon be dominated by tree sprouts and shrubs, including the invasive autumn olive. Instead, the largest remained mostly unchanged for 100 to 150 years.

Those visitors have access to more than 3,400 acres in the historic district, of which 1,000 acres are kept in fields. It’s the largest such district within the National Park Service — even beating out famed Cades Cove in Great Smokey Mountain National Park.

“A few years ago we did a cultural landscape management plan, and we identified that for it to continue to resemble a historic landscape we needed to make some of the fields stay open. Otherwise, why did these farmers build houses in the middle of a forest,” Ulrich said.

Credit goes to volunteers with two groups, he continued: Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear and Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes.

“We own the large tractor and funded the new mower that keeps the invasives out once they are cleared,” said PHSB executive director Susan Pocklington. “PHSB proposed to the park this year that we get estimates from contractors ... to clear the fields with a forestry mulcher, which would be far more efficient and effective.”

Ulrich explained why modern-day tractors are used for the work.

“The ‘period of significance’ is from 1870 to 1945. The reason it’s so long is that was the point when subsistent farmers were making their living in the district. After 1945 a lot of farmers got second jobs to supplement their farming.”

Of course, tractors were well established on farms by 1945.

The National Park Service is open to new opportunities, including leasing land out as hay fields or even a historic structure to a farmer for equipment storage.

“They would have to practice sustainable agriculture, without pesticides,” Ulrich said.

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