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The Boardman's Eagles: Evidence of the End of Carelessness?

On Earth Day 2006, growth without plunder in northern Michigan

April 17, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Most northern Michigan leaders and citizens now understand that protecting places like the Boardman River valley makes both environmental and economic sense.

TRAVERSE CITY—On the day of the first big melt in March, a glorious Boardman River afternoon, we spotted the bald eagles that nest in the backwaters of Sabin Dam. They rose out of the tops of the hemlock and cedar, and were close enough for a few moments to see the white feathers on their heads and tails. Then, with wings stretched like taut sails, they rode up on the wind and the thermals, one heading north, the other south, passing out of view.  

The first bald eagle I ever saw in the wild was in 1970, during a canoe trip on the upper Delaware River. It came up river at us, steadily stroking the air with huge black wings — wondrous and rare. This was the era before authorities banned the DDT insecticide that softened shells and killed raptors before they even hatched.

The rules worked. Eagles proliferated. In the years since I’ve seen eagles pluck salmon out of the dark blue waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and soar over Mount Katahdin in Maine. I’ve watched eagles hunt in northern Minnesota’s chain of lakes and roost in the moss-draped forests of South Carolina’s Low Country. Much closer to home, I’ve encountered eagles on the Manistee River, below Red Bridge, and watched them fly the icy coast of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

I am completely candid in saying that I feel a sense of kinship with eagles—a tie not in blood but in spirit for these beautiful creatures and their wild places. In this, my 50th year — and the 36th time that I’ve celebrated Earth Day — I understand why some people may think that sounds a bit daft. Sentiment about real things in a virtual world, after all, is not seen as a virtue.

It’s Not an Accident
But there’s nothing naïve or sentimental about the role the Boardman’s eagles play as an indicator of ecological health, or in how they stir my passion as a writer and a natural steward.  For me, as for so many of my friends and colleagues in the environmental community here in northwest Michigan, it’s personal.

This part of the Boardman River, which lies less than two miles from the Traverse City line and at the heart of one of the fastest-growing metropolitan regions in the Midwest, is full of natural gifts. Beaver-gnawed stumps are as common along the shoreline as parking meters are in town. Here and there are tracks in the snow of small game, probably mink. Fly fishermen seek this stretch of the river to land big brown trout. Naturalists say bear, fox, and otter are common.

The river’s superb condition is not an accident. It is the logical outcome of a fortunate convergence of law, nature, activism, human intelligence, and northwest Michigan’s uncommon good sense. The eagles thrive because environmental laws were enforced, sound stewardship occurred, bad development proposals were defeated, pollution declined, and forests were conserved. The Boardman valley now provides food, shelter, and security fit for a pair of eagles. Over the years I, and the organization I work for, played a part in making sure that happened.  

What’s even more encouraging, though, is that the very same principles and values that provide the Boardman’s eagles with what they need are being applied to secure wild and human habitats in so many other places across northwest Michigan. The era of exploitation, which produced too many complex snarls over land, resources, money, and power, is gradually being replaced by an evolving and powerful new ethic driven by a fresh set of economic and environmental responsibilities.

Just in Time
The idea that we ought to conserve rather than ruin the region’s natural resources has arrived just in time. The eight counties surrounding Traverse City were home to 249,000 residents at the end of 2004. That’s 12,611—or 5.3 percent—more people, just since 2000.

Along with the people has come a rush of new housing, nearly one home built for every additional person. In the four years after 2000, builders erected 10,648 single family homes in the eight-county region, according to the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. 

It’s understandable why so many people worry about numbers like these. But growth isn’t bad. The flip side of swift demographic growth, of course, is the development of the region’s diverse and increasingly prosperous economy. Even with the lingering statewide recession, seasonal unemployment rates in the eight northwest Michigan counties around Traverse City are substantially lower than they were in the early 1990s. Poverty has declined and household income has steadily risen. In Benzie County, where I live, average household income rose to nearly $40,000 in 2003, up from $31,666 in 1997, a 25 percent increase. In 2005, the county issued 222 permits for single family homes, 11 more than in 2004.

The important choice we have to make is how to arrange ourselves on the land. One reason that people continue to settle in Benzie and the region’s seven other counties is that it’s a great place to live. A second reason, I think, is that ever more people are involved in making sure it stays that way.

On the Move
Wherever you look up and down the Lake Michigan coast, people are showing up in government forums, business meetings, and in our regional media to advance sound ideas about where the region is going.

Acme Township citizens and elected leaders have been working hard for years to build a real town center on farmland, instead of another unsightly, traffic-choked mall. Elmwood Township citizens are making a strong and useful case for conserving open space and being smarter about where new construction is located.

This Is Our Town, a Charlevoix citizen group, convinced Wal-Mart not to wreck their downtown economy with a new superstore, and then convinced two local governments to enact zoning measures that limit the size of retail outlets. Manistee residents, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and government leaders replaced a proposal for a polluting, coal-burning power plant with a regional, clean, renewable energy plan that launches this June with a county-sponsored energy fair.

Downtown Traverse City—like Petoskey, Manistee, Frankfort, and other cities—is investing in new housing and businesses, rebuilding the civic vitality and economy that were torn down for parking lots in the 1950s and 1960s. Benzie County citizens are voting this year to establish a new bus transit system. Republican state Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City is proposing good legislation to conserve rather than pave over farmland.

Blocking a Bridge, Building a Movement
The recent history of the Boardman River is another apt illustration of the trend. As far back as the 1980s, the very same stretch of the river that the eagles now cruise was viewed as a prime crossing spot for a five-lane highway and bridge. In the 1990s, the public forests upstream were targeted variously for public land sales, energy development, and increased timber cutting. At one point in the 1990s the Legislature and the governor seriously considered eliminating the 1970 state law that kept the Boardman River natural.  

Regional citizen organizations stepped to the fore to beat back each and every one of these ideas. But we didn’t just assert that environmental values were at stake: Important economic ones were, too. The design for the highway and bridge, for example, called for building a wall of dirt as tall as a forest across the entire valley. It would have displaced wildlife, ruined stream flow and wetlands, compromised human recreation, made sprawl and traffic worse, disturbed the quiet with traffic noise, and eroded the region’s competitive economic advantage.

But the really exciting part of the Boardman’s story is what’s coming. All sorts of unlikely allies—greens and business leaders, liberals and conservatives, county and township government leaders—have been working shoulder to shoulder for nearly two years on a new regional development strategy that responds to swift growth without wrecking this favorite place.  

Northwest Michigan’s embrace of a cleaner, greener, and more prosperous way of life is unmistakable. It’s taken awhile, but we’ve finally come to understand that securing our natural geography comes first.

Keith Schneider is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which he founded in Benzie County in 1995. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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