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The Ridges Sanctuary preserves Wisconsin’s native orchids and more

Stroll down the new boardwalk or along the five miles of trails at The Ridges Sanctuary, the nature preserve in Baileys Harbor on the Door County peninsula, and there is a very good chance you will come across a ram’s-head lady’s-slipper, one of the 49 orchid varieties indigenous to Wisconsin.

The ram's-head lady's-slipper is one of the many orchid species being preserved and protected at The Ridges. Photos: Doug Sherman.

The ram's-head lady's-slipper is one of the many orchid species being preserved and protected at The Ridges. Photos: Doug Sherman.

But what’s common to The Ridges is less common elsewhere. The ram’s-head lady’s-slipper is considered a “threatened” species by Wisconsin’s Bureau of Endangered Resources, and The Ridges’ efforts at orchid restoration may help save the delicate yet stunning flower from extinction.

Such a mission is just one indication that The Ridges Sanctuary itself is a very uncommon destination.

The 1,500-acre sanctuary, along with another 100 or so acres on Logan Creek in nearby Jacksonport, was the Badger State’s first private nature preserve and land trust. As one of only three boreal forests in Wisconsin — meaning that it is a northern forest consisting of trees like pines and spruces — The Ridges has a concentration of 26 of the state’s 49 orchid varieties. It’s also a home and breeding ground for the federally endangered Hine’s emerald dragonfly and families of northern flying squirrels.

Located on a Lake Michigan inlet that concentrates the water’s cold currents, The Ridges takes its name from the unusual geographic formations created by the lake’s ebbs and flows, according to Steve Leonard, the sanctuary’s executive director.

“Each of the ridges is an old lakeshore formed by the lake’s wave action,” Leonard says. “The space between the ridges accounts for between 40 to 50 years, which is Lake Michigan’s recessionary cycle.”

The 30 existing ridges total between 1,200 to 1,500 years of the lake’s ingress and egress, Leonard adds. The hydrologic activity also contributes to the unique environment that makes The Ridges such an effective natural preserve.

Fronted by a relatively new $2 million visitors center on Highway 57, The Ridges’ pristine environment makes it a peaceful retreat from Door County’s summer tourist bustle. The sanctuary’s unique flora and verdant forest also make it easy to understand what first attracted naturalists to the region more than 80 years ago.

In 1935, Albert Fuller, then botany curator at the Milwaukee Public Museum, began traveling to Baileys Harbor to study the area’s unusual plant life. His research soon led to a full-blown conservation effort when he discovered that the original 40-acre land parcel, leased to Door County by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was destined to become a trailer park.

After two years of advocacy by Fuller and fellow conservationist Jens Jensen, the newly formed Ridges Sanctuary, the state's first land trust, acquired the parcel in 1937. Over the years, adjoining land was acquired to grow the preserve to the size it is today.

Two lighthouses, a pair of range lights built in 1869, still stand in The Ridges. The lights in their day were important safety features for the many ships that arrived in Baileys Harbor as part of a booming logging industry in the late 19th century.

Prior to the building of the new visitors' center, which opened in June 2015, the house at the base of the larger of the two lights served as The Ridges’ administrative offices. The house and the lights have since been refurbished and will open for public tours for the first time on May 21.

For Leonard, however, the big news is the orchid restoration project, which is being conducted with help from other members of the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC) and the Smithsonian Institution.

“The primary goal is to better understand and preserve these orchid species and their habitat so we can better protect them in the future,” Leonard says.

Orchids are one of the world’s largest plant families, with more than 30,000 varieties growing in almost every habitat on every continent except Antarctica, the executive director explains. Because of the plant’s reliance on certain pollinators and fungi to survive, orchids are among the first species to disappear when an ecosystem is altered or changed.

As the botanical equivalent of a canary in the coal mine, orchids provide valuable early warnings for the declining health of an ecosystem, enabling conservation action to be taken before it’s too late. That’s part of why The Ridges has embarked on a full-scale restoration effort.

In April, The Ridges began to create a scope of work for the summer months, which begins with a survey of the preserve's orchid varieties and comparison of habitat data with other regional NOACC members. From there conservators will begin collecting and freezing for future use seeds from different orchid varieties to be stored locally at The Ridges, nationally at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and internationally at London’s Kew Gardens.

The sanctuary and other NOACC members also will conduct research into orchid propagation and the relationship with the mycorrhizal fungi they need to survive. Additional research will be done on the various pollinators required to help the orchid population prosper.

Further steps in the plan include the establishment of a greenhouse to foster and grow orchid seedlings, restoration of areas within the sanctuary for orchid growth, and an overall orchid management plan for The Ridges.

“Our biggest effort of the summer will be to reintroduce the Ram’s-Head Lady’s Slipper, which we’re propagating offsite,” Leonard says. “Then we'll look at the other species as well.”

In the meantime, a growing number of visitors will come to The Ridges Sanctuary for its peace and tranquility. Few of those visitors treading the boardwalk will be aware of the riches growing right at their feet.

The Ridges Sanctuary, located at 1866 Hwy. 57, Baileys Harbor, is open daily, with guided hikes available on weekends. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children under 18. For more information, call 920-839-2802.

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