"Paradise in wilderness": Celebrating 90 years of science and stewardship at Notre Dame’s Land O'Lakes

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“Paradise in wilderness” is how Rev. John Francis (later Cardinal) O’Hara, C.S.C, described the property today known as Land O’Lakes on the Wisconsin-Michigan border after his first visit to the area. The year was 1934, the same year he became President of the University of Notre Dame. Soon after O’Hara’s visit, the owner of Land O’Lakes, Martin J. Gillen, promised to bequeath his “paradise” to the University. O’Hara’s plan was for members of the University’s founding religious order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, to use it as a retreat location. Gillen also hoped the site could be a boon for the “scientific purposes of Forestry, Botany, Biology and allied sciences.”

Gillen would go on to spend much of the rest of his life enlarging the property and securing it as a resource for the future. He arranged deals with the federal government and with lumber companies to add thousands of additional acres to his original gift. He even served as the legal counsel for the University in opposing efforts to turn a fire lane on the property into a public road.

As a result of Gillen’s efforts to safeguard Land O’Lakes, it remains a unique location—nearly eight thousand acres pristine in environmental quality. Its mix of wetlands and forests dotted with over two dozen lakes stretches along the border between Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and is bisected by Tenderfoot Creek.

Its location—a day's drive from the University’s main campus in South Bend, Indiana—meant that Land O’Lakes was suitable only for specific types of research prior to the construction of scientific facilities on site. Nevertheless, Edward Birge, former President and professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recognized the Notre Dame site as “the finest and most unique piece of scientific property in the north, for experimental purposes” in biology, botany, and zoology. In 1951, Arthur D. Hasler, a pioneering freshwater ecologist at UW-Madison, used the site to perform the first whole-lake ecosystem experiment by using a dike to divide the two sides of an hourglass-shaped lake. He used one side of the lake as a reference ecosystem to determine the effects of alterations on the other.

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In 1968, the University announced new plans to expand research at Land O’Lakes, and throughout the 1970s, research by Notre Dame faculty began to accelerate on site. The driving force behind much of that research was George B. Craig, Jr., who was one of the world’s foremost experts on mosquitos and the first Notre Dame faculty member to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. For more than two decades, Craig brought Notre Dame students to study and work at Land O’Lakes, where they could catch his “contagious” passion for biological research.

Eventually, with support from class of 1951 alumnus Bernard J. (Jerry) Hank, the University constructed a modern research center at Land O’Lakes known as the University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC), which coordinates research activities on the site. UNDERC’s signature educational offering is its summer field biology program, which enables students to live and study for ten weeks at Land O’Lakes for an unparalleled, hands-on experience in field biology. In addition, graduate students and faculty from other universities, including Duke, Yale, and more use the site to investigate the interactions between organisms, the environment, and planetary health.

Students receive a structured introduction to vertebrate ecology, invertebrate ecology, aquatic ecology, and forest ecology while also gaining an understanding of Native American perspectives on the environment. More experienced students work with an UNDERC-affiliated faculty mentor on an ecology research project of their own. Years of assiduous protection of the Land O’Lakes property have ensured that students can study vibrant populations of flora, including aspens, pines, mosses, and ferns, and fauna, including beavers, porcupines, black bears, and deer. Scientists have used the site’s iNaturalist page to register sightings of threatened species, such as the common loon, and species of special concern, such as the trumpeter swan, as well as endangered species, such as the cougar.

In recent decades, Land O’Lakes has also emerged as a key site for national efforts to document environmental change. In 2008, the site was included as the core terrestrial and aquatic site for the Great Lakes region in the National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), a network of field research sites that provides open data on ecosystems across the United States. Land O’Lakes was selected because it represents the "ecoclimate characteristics" of the Great Lakes region with "little or no degradation from humans." NEON conducts extensive ecological monitoring at the site, ranging from field data collection to remote sensing to passive data collection via a canopy tower.

UNDERC is also part of a project funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that pairs images from the International Space Station with genomic research on trees in an effort to gain a picture of overall forest health. The use is also part of a Smithsonian Institution ForestGEO program of long-term forest monitoring around the world, where nearly 80 research groups use standardized methods of tagging, measuring, and identifying tree species.

Jeffrey F. Rhoads, vice president for research and professor in the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, explains that “the combination of natural resources and data infrastructure available at Land O’Lakes has made the site more valuable than ever to environmental research. Since the property has been preserved and protected for decades, the data researchers collect there serves as a crucial baseline to compare with ecological systems elsewhere.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., former president of Notre Dame, recognized that Land O’Lakes might have its greatest role in helping the University have a voice in efforts to understand and respond to human alteration of the natural environment. Hesburgh called it a “perfect giant agar [Petri] dish for the study of the environment” that stood in contrast to the threats of “water we could not drink, air we could not breathe, climate we could not tolerate, and land we could not farm.”

Nathan Swenson, a biological sciences professor and the director of UNDERC, says the Petri dish metaphor is an apt one: “To make use of this land, to learn from it, we have to protect it from human encroachment,” he says. “That is our challenge today—just as it has been the challenge of those who have gone before us—to be both scientists as well as stewards of this truly unique place.”


Brett Beasley / Writer and Editorial Program Manager

Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame

bbeasle1@nd.edu / +1 574-631-8183

research.nd.edu / @UNDResearch

About Notre Dame Research:

The University of Notre Dame is a private research and teaching university inspired by its Catholic mission. Located in South Bend, Indiana, its researchers are advancing human understanding through research, scholarship, education, and creative endeavor in order to be a repository for knowledge and a powerful means for doing good in the world. For more information, please see research.nd.edu or @UNDResearch.

Originally published by Brett Beasley at research.nd.edu on December 12, 2023.