A resort along the Namekagon River is proposing a major expansion to include campgrounds for recreational vehicles, raising concerns about impacts on the St. Croix’s largest tributary. The plan calls for Heartwood Resort to open up its 760 acres to RVs, seeking to become a destination for visitors who enjoy riding ATVs. River advocates are saying it would significantly affect people and wildlife along a beautiful stretch of river.
Heartwood Resort is located on the lower Namekagon adjacent to Howell Landing, near Trego, about 17 miles above the Namekagon’s confluence with the St. Croix. It was begun by Chicagoans in the 1920s, later operated as a Boy Scout camp, and has passed through numerous owners in the intervening decades.
In December 2019, a Prior Lake, Minn. man who already owns several other entertainment-related businesses in northern Wisconsin purchased Heartwood. Mark Wallskog now wants to add about 140 sites for recreational vehicles to the property. A second phase could double the campsites. The edge of the first proposed campground would be less than a tenth of a mile from the Namekagon River.
The request will be considered by the Washburn County zoning committee at a public hearing on April 11.
Cause for concerns
Wild Rivers Conservancy of the Namekagon and St. Croix is opposing the proposal, saying it represents numerous threats to a secluded section of the river.
”When you kayak or canoe this incredibly beautiful stretch of the river, it feels like you are in an undeveloped wilderness,” wrote executive director Deb Ryun in a letter to the committee. “Allowing a 140-unit RV campground here, the equivalent of creating a small town of 280-560 people or more on the edge of this national park, does not make sense for so many reasons.”
The group says the RV park could contaminate water with more paved surfaces causing additional runoff, and septic systems that would be needed to handle human waste. Developing the site could increase the number of informal trails that will probably develop from the campground to the river, and noise and light pollution that will emanate from RVs, generators, passenger vehicles, and ATVs.
Heartwood is located next to Howell Landing, a popular site for beginning and ending canoe trips, as well as offering camping, toilets, and other infrastructure.
”We are deeply concerned that the Landing itself will evolve from a public landing for all to use to one the resort guests and owner consider their private landing,” Ryun wrote.
The proposal has already hit one roadblock. Wallskog attempted to convince the town of Chicog, where Heartwood is located, to restore a public road that appears critical to providing access to the site. The short dead-end Yellow Bank Road, which has not been maintained for at least 20 years, would have cost more than $75,000 to restore, according to the town board.
In February, town supervisors voted to officially discontinue the road, leaving Heartwood’s hopes in jeopardy.
Then, earlier this month, the town board voted to deny a conditional use permit for the proposed RV park. According to the minutes, local citizens at the hearing raised concerns about increased traffic on local roads and lakes, environmental impacts, increase of taxes to pay for road improvements, and impacts from ATVs and noise.
Preliminary designs for the site include roads or ATV trails extending south from the proposed campground areas toward the Namekagon River, where satellite imagery shows some routes already exist.
The National Park Service promotes the stretch of the Namekagon in this area as prime for animals and solitude.
“This stretch of the Namekagon River is far away from roads and highways, making it great for wildlife viewing,” the Park Service says. “The river here is mostly flat water with a few riffles and light rapids. Numerous islands and river bends hide other paddlers so you feel secluded.”
Wild Rivers Conservancy is encouraging interested individuals to contact the Washburn County zoning committee members before April 7, or attend the hearing. More information is available here.