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Greener Governor?

A chance for change

October 12, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Though he hasn’t yet begun to act like Sierra Club founder John Muir, the last few weeks have found Gov. John Engler making much saner decisions about Michigan’s natural resources.

In August, after listening to concerns about the safety of exploring for oil and gas beneath Lake Michigan, the Governor asked a panel of scientists to study the risks. The panel’s recommendation could come as early as this week.

In September, prompted by citizen unrest about developing publicly-owned minerals below Ludington State Park, the Governor directed the Department of Natural Resources to call off the proposed lease sale.

And ever since he first acknowledged the issue in his State of the State address last January, Engler has repeatedly spoken out against oil and gas development in the 22,000-acre Jordan Valley, one of Michigan’s most beautiful natural areas.

It’s too soon to know whether Engler’s election year awakening is driven by anything other than polling numbers. In the past year, the governor has seen his performance rating on the environment flip from 53 percent favorable, to more than 50 percent unfavorable.

This month, however, the Engler Administration has another prime opportunity to clarify its position. The Department of Environmental Quality is weighing whether to grant a prominent northern Michigan resort owner permission to needlessly damage the Cedar River in Antrim County, the finest blue ribbon trout stream in the lower peninsula.

Under any circumstances, the decision should be an easy one for the Administration to make. Shanty Creek resort is building ski runs, homes, and a new Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course on some 600 acres of land that it purchased two years ago. The Cedar River flows along the edge of the property, flanked by serene cedar forests and so clear that its waters gleam and swirl over polished rocks.

In every way, the 10-mile-long Cedar represents the best that northern Michigan has to offer. It is so cold, so wild, and so productive that it is the only river in the lower peninsula that the Department of Natural Resources thinks is suitable for reintroduction of the grayling, a legendary sport fish.

Shanty Creek, however, disregarded this natural heritage. Instead the resort views the Cedar as nothing more than an economically useful amenity. It has asked the Department of Environmental Quality for one permit to install two intake pipes in the river to withdraw hundreds of millions of gallons annually in order to make snow in the winter and water fairways in the summer. And it requested a second permit to hack down trees along the banks for golf cart bridges so that the river can serve as a water hazard for two golf holes.

When the resort’s ignoble proposals became public earlier this year, there was an immediate response. More than 1,000 area residents signed petitions urging the DEQ to reject the permits. The Antrim County Commission and the Kearney Township Board joined Trout Unlimited, the Michigan Environmental Council, and Michigan United Conservation Clubs in protesting Shanty Creek’s damaging plan.

Virtually every critic made the same argument: The water Shanty Creek withdrew from the river would harm the fishery, and cutting down acres of trees would cause unnecessary damage to a natural treasure. Moreover, workable and cost-effective alternatives were readily available. Shanty Creek could easily drill new water wells, as every other destination resort does in northern Michigan. And there was more than enough room to build two golf holes without crossing the river.

Last month, the Department of Natural Resources officially joined the list of opponents. In a letter to the DEQ, the resource agency declared Shanty Creek’s water diversion proposal an "unlawful. impairment of waters and other natural resources of the state." As for the bridges, the agency said it would not recommend denying the permit as long as Shanty Creek followed through on a plan to safeguard some of its holdings elsewhere along the river as a permanent conservation reserve.

Friends of the Cedar River, a grass roots citizens group founded earlier this year, is taking no chances. Last week it filed suit in Circuit Court in Bellaire, asserting that both the water diversion and the bridges would be violations of the 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act, which prohibits "pollution, impairment, or destruction" of state natural resources. "They’ve got to understand that the laws designed to protect our natural resources apply to big limited partnerships just as they do to ordinary citizens," said Larry Rochon, the group’s co-founder.

Terry Schieber, Shanty Creek’s president, said last summer that any changes in the resort’s plan for the river would be "devastating" to the development. But as public pressure mounts, Schieber is reversing course.

In a letter to the Department of Environmental Quality last week, the resort said it would drill a new well to supply the majority of the water that was needed. And it said two 18-inch water intake pipes would be substituted for larger pipes it originally planned to install in the river.

Now it is time for the Engler Administration to act. It should deny both permit applications, for the bridge and the pipes. All available evidence indicates that barring Shanty Creek’s ill-advised use of the Cedar River would not damage the resort’s business at all. Perhaps most important to the governor, a decision in the public interest would solidify the environmental credentials that his administration, at last, appears intent on earning.

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