By Greg Seubert
WHITE LAKE – Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest officials have yet to decide whether they will reverse plans to close a popular northern Wisconsin campground until further notice.
Boulder Lake Campground in northwestern Oconto County is currently closed and would normally open in May in time for the start of Wisconsin’s inland fishing season.
However, incidents last year involving a property owner adjacent to the campground have prompted forest officials to keep the facility closed until further notice.
A closed campground would have a negative economic impact on the area, according to the owners of two local businesses that depend on traffic from the campground each summer.
“We’re a new owner here, so we were kind of looking forward to that campground being open,” said Brent Hipke, owner of Crab N Jack’s, located less than two miles from the campground on State Highway 55.
“That campground is going to affect several businesses in this area,” he said. “There are a dozen or more that will be directly affected by the closure. That’s unfortunate if that happens. I don’t know what to expect. I’ve lived here all my life and I know that campground has supported a lot of local businesses. I was depending on it.”
He said the campground, which includes 89 individual sites and a group camping area, factored into his and wife Jackie’s decision to purchase the business, formerly known as Buettner’s Wild Wolf Inn, last October.
“We offer rafting, restaurant dining and the bar,” he said. “We’re actually looking into doing some canoe and kayak classes and thinking about putting in a few (camping) sites ourselves.”
Hipke said he assumed the campground would reopen this year after law enforcement officials said the situation with the property owner had been resolved.
An Oconto County judge ruled in late January that the man seek treatment at a mental health facility and also suspended his right to possess firearms.
The C-NNF website includes the following statement: “The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has temporarily closed Boulder Lake Campground for the 2018 recreation season and no reservations will be accepted until further notice. Reservations already made have been cancelled and refunds generated. The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest continues to evaluate the potential public safety concerns that are outside of the forest’s control at Boulder Lake Campground. The Forest Service has not made a final determination on if and/or when Boulder Lake Campground will be open for the 2018 recreation season.”
Hipke said he hasn’t heard from local law enforcement or U.S. Forest Service officials about the campground’s status.
“They have not contacted my business or any business in the area that I know of as to what the situation is,” he said. “There were a lot of stories. I don’t know what’s true or what isn’t true. Everybody had a story to tell about this individual. It’s a big concern and it’s scary.”
Jeremy Walters operates Bob and Joni’s Northern Lights a few miles northwest of the campground in Langlade.
Unlike Hipke, who is getting ready for his first tourism season, Northern Lights has been in Walters’ family for 70 years.
“I definitely understand why they want to keep it closed,” Walters said. “We’ve already had an economic impact from other (private campgrounds) closing in the last couple of years. It’s one of the last really good things we have in the area to keep the tourism going. When we heard that, we were just devastated.”
“That’s going to affect businesses here,” he added. “We have rafts and tubes on the river. We have a bar, a grill and beer garden. You’re probably talking tens of thousands of dollars for just my business alone. I actually get people that camp down there to come and see my bands on Friday nights. If that campground’s not open this summer, that’s going to be devastating to our economy. I’m hoping they can get it resolved and have it open. That place is packed every week.”
Walters said he knows the man who reportedly threatened campers in the campground last year.
“That gentleman’s property was my grandma and grandpa’s homestead, so I’m very familiar with that location,” he said. “He has been in here a few times. He’s always been very, very polite and nice to me, but he was also kind of a loose cannon, from what I understand. I’ve also seen some social media stuff he’s posted. I definitely think there’s something going on there because I’d talk to him and it didn’t even seem like the same person.”
The man is reportedly not in the Boulder Lake area while he receives treatment.
“It sounds like they have him getting help for the next six months, which would bring us through the end of summer,” Hipke said. “I would think there’s no reason not to open it, that’s my understanding. I haven’t heard a word. I just assumed after what I heard on the news that it was going to open again and they had the situation resolved.”
“How long is he going to be getting help and taken care of?” Walters asked. “At some point, you do get released. I don’t know if they’re afraid that he gets out halfway through summer, comes back and does something.”
Walters recently talked to a ranger from the forest’s office in nearby Lakewood.
“He said it’s mainly for public safety, but it’s still his property right next door (to the campground),” he said. “He can go through treatment and get all the help he wants, but if he really has intentions to do something, he can wait until he gets out. You just don’t know.”
Boulder Lake Campground is one of the top tourism draws in the White Lake area, which includes the Wolf River and the Menominee Indian Reservation.
“There were two private campgrounds down the road and they each held 200 people,” Walters said. “I knew a lot of those groups over years of bartending here. Most of the groups that were at those campgrounds went to other places. They didn’t even come back in this area. This is the last thing we need.”
The U.S. Forest Service made several recent improvements at Boulder Lake Campground, including showers and flush toilets.
“When I talked to the guy in Lakewood, one of the rangers up there, he said Boulder Lake is a huge chunk of revenue when it comes to their campgrounds,” Walters said. “He said that is their No. 1 money maker and their most popular destination. He was hoping there’d be something resolved.”
Hipke is as well.
“It sounded like the thing was resolved,” he said. “I didn’t think twice about it after that. I had lots of plans to do some remodeling and decks outside. I’ll have to make some decisions.”
Hipke said he never heard from local law enforcement or forest officials on what was happening with the campground.
“I was kind of disappointed that they didn’t inform us what was going on,” he said. “A place of business should be informed, especially if they have a crowd of people.”
He said he heard reports of incidents at the campground last summer, but didn’t know if they were true.
“I just took it as rumors,” he said. “You never know if it’s true or not. I heard things about him threatening campers in the campground. I think they should go public with this and let us all know what’s going on.”
“It is up in the air and I’m confused,” Walters said. “They said the situation was stabilized, then why wouldn’t they say, ‘OK, we’re going to open?’ One guy can actually cause this and I don’t think he even understands the effect it’s going to do to the area.”
In the meantime, the U.S. Forest Service is encouraging people to take advantage of other federal campgrounds.
“If the situation’s neutralized and they’re not reopening, the only valid reason I can see is they’re worried that if he does come back, he’s going to do something,” Walters said. “That’s my only guess. If you have it neutralized, why wouldn’t you say, ‘Heck yeah, we’re going to open?’
“Nobody’s really talking about it now, but there’s snow on the ground,” he said. “People are snowmobiling and guys are ice fishing. I’m sure as the snow melts, people are going to start to wonder what’s going on with that place. It’s just a shame.”
Greg Seubert covers sports for the Waupaca County Post, a Multi-Media Channels publication.