When wolf researcher Mike Nelson isn't in the woods, he's often in the Kawishiwi Laboratory and Forest Research Center -- a small complex of log and stone cabins nestled under centuries-old white pines south of Ely.
With a backdrop of singing sparrows and the babble of the Kawishiwi River, Nelson has worked beside internationally known academics such as wolf researcher David Mech and bear expert Lynn Rogers. Nelson calls it a ground-zero site for early wolf study.
"This small little site is known worldwide by a small cadre of wolf experts," he said.
The U.S. Geological Survey credits the recovery of the wolf population to the research based at the lab, part of a complex of buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. Its researchers also made pioneering studies of bears.
Nine of the dozen structures are considered eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but they're not on the list yet. Researchers value the base because it's close to air service, a city and wildlife. It also has office space, heat and indoor plumbing.
But despite the important research done there, the U.S. Forest Service plans to tear down the historic wildlife research station south of Ely. But now the buildings are deteriorating, and costly to maintain. Because it would cost more than $1 million to renovate the buildings, the Forest Service plans to take them down.
The Forest Service will consider the demolition plan at a public meeting tonight.
People who have nothing to do with wildlife research lament the prospect of losing the buildings.
"Very, very nice log work," said Ron Brodigan, who runs a school 15 miles away that teaches log construction. "Very craftsman like, and pretty well done."
Most of the structures were built in what's called the National Park Style -- with features like pointed log ends at the corners.
According to the Forest Service, in the early days the bathroom attracted a lot of attention in Ely because it was a novelty to not have to go to the outhouse.
Brodigan said the buildings show their age, but are not beyond saving.
"They're taking fairly good care of it, and it's always a treat to see it," he said.
But to the Forest Service, the research station is a money pit.
Richard Sindt, an engineer with the Forest Service's Northern Research Station, the branch that owns the buildings, said the Forest Service hasn't done any research there in decades. The researchers there now are working for the United States Geological Survey.
Sindt said his group is forced to give up research money for maintenance for the Kawishiwi station. He said it cannot give the buildings away.
"Because it's federal land and federal property we don't just turn it over to private citizens or even the state and non-profit organizations," Sindt said.
The Northern Research Station also can't turn the buildings over to the Superior National Forest which owns the land. The forest has no use for them, Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders said.
But Elanne Palcich thinks there's more to the demolition plans than the Forest Service is revealing.
"The demolition of this Kawishiwi River Research Station is connected to mining," she said.
Palcich said Duluth Metals hopes to place a facility very close to the property for underground copper-nickel mines. She said the mining company could be forced to alter plans in deference to the historic structures nearby, and that the timing is suspicious.
"The Forest Service is well aware of where the exploratory drill sites are, where the deposits are marked out," Palcich said. "I don't see how the Forest Service can claim there is no link."
The agency has heard that suspicion from local residents for years, but Forest Service engineer Richard Sindt said there's just no connection.
"It has nothing to do with this mining situation," Sindt said.
Duluth Metals Project Manager David Oliver said the buildings have no effect on the mining project -- whether they remain or not.
But the mining issue is likely to come up today, at an afternoon public hearing and a 6 p.m. meeting in Ely, where officials will review a study on issues surrounding the proposed research station's demolition.