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"The Creek’s Last Words?"

State, at odds with itself, supports new park that bridge would ruin

July 18, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

To: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
From: Kelly Thayer, transportation project manager, Michigan Land Use Institute
Re: Public hearing on Hartman-Hammond road and bridge project

Good evening. I’d like to thank the state Department of Environmental Quality for the opportunity to speak tonight. I’m Kelly Thayer, transportation project manager at the Michigan Land Use Institute.

My comments tonight are meant to be taken in the context of Michigan’s Wetland Protection Act, which says that the DEQ must consider the project’s “probable impact on recognized historic, cultural, scenic, ecological, or recreational values and on the public health or fish or wildlife.”

Success Story From The Past
Allow me to share a regional wetland and freshwater success story and ask the state to be a continued partner in that success.

I’ll start with some historical perspective about the Boardman and the bay. Here’s a quote from 1927 — more than 75 years ago — calling for the construction of a local sewage treatment plant to protect the area’s freshwater.

“If the Grand Traverse Region is to retain its enviable reputation as “The Heart of Nature’s Playground,” then the Boardman River must be cleaned of its human sewage and become once again the habitat of the brook trout, the German Brown and the Rainbow Trout, as it was some 15 years ago. Our beautiful Grand Traverse Bay, instead of being an open cess pool, must be cleaned of its sewerage refuse and once again become the mecca of the perch and the Mackinaw trout fishermen.” (Dr. Walter G. Kinyon, a district officer of the Izaak Walton League, 1927)

Those certainly were not “the good old days” from the perspective of water quality. We’ve come a very long way since then because of the hard work and commitment of everyday people and our local, state and federal governments.

Today, according to the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Boardman River indeed is a blue-ribbon trout stream whose clean, cold waters supply nearly a third of the freshwater flowing into Grand Traverse Bay, itself a nationally known gem. In our region, much of the Boardman is protected as a state-designated Natural River. And the river is nestled in the 420-acre Grand Traverse County Nature Education Reserve.

The county park currently runs along the Boardman River for 2.5 miles from just south of Beitner Road to just north of the Sabin Dam. According to the DNR, the area — including right where the highway would go — provides habitat for rare species including the bald eagle, red-shouldered hawk and the massasauga rattle snake.  Its trail system beckons multitudes of hikers and skiers and soon will connect to the east side of Boardman Lake and the outstanding regional TART Trail system.

Bottom line: The park is fabulous and full of vitality. And – thanks to the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and Garfield Township — the park’s about to gain 80 acres and 1.5 more miles along the west side of the river, all the way up to the YMCA.  That means 4 full miles of parkland for people and wildlife to enjoy forever. And the state is a major partner in funding the park extension.

Now the Highway
Now a few words about the wetlands and water quality damage likely to be caused by the proposed $40 million highway, which would bisect the park extension and also is being heavily funded with state tax dollars. Thus, in effect, the state would pay for creating the park and then ruining it.

  • Consider that nearby the field where the buffalo now roam near U.S. 31 and Hartman roads is a hardwood forested wetland. There, water springs from the ground and serves as the headwaters for Jack’s Creek, the “great, designated trout stream” that the road commission’s consultant spoke of earlier. The road commission would bury it under 20,000 cubic yards of fill in order to re-route and widen Hartman Road. You’ll find the mouth of Jack’s Creek along the boardwalk just north of the Sabin Dam. If you listen, its voice can be heard through its waterfalls and rapids. If the road commission has its way these could be the creek’s last words.
  • Then the road commission would dump another 44,000 cubic yards of fill in the Boardman River valley — a massive mound of earth to support the four-lane highway. That’s so much fill that it would cover a whole football field and end zones under 22 feet of dirt. Hikers, skiers — and supposedly wildlife —would be routed through concrete underpasses.
  • Nearly 30,000 cars and trucks a day — about what we see on South Airport Road today — would race across the bridge, itself just 10 feet off the river. The sound in the valley would exceed that heard in a typical commercial zone; within a few hundred feet of the bridge it would be like standing near a gas-powered lawn mower.  Experts — hired by us and our local partners — from Michigan State University have determined that the runoff from the road and bridge would diminish the river’s flow and water quality, and fuel sprawl.
  • On the river’s east side is an intact Northern White Cedar swamp that would be destroyed. No one has ever been able to recreate or replace this type of wetland – ever. The road commission claims they’d make the river better by removing some berms, tossing some trees into the river, and recreating wetlands elsewhere. Simply put, you cannot improve a natural area with a four-lane highway.

Affect on Wetlands
The road commission claims that “only” four acres of wetlands would be destroyed. In response, I’ll end with a final quotation, this one from a University of Michigan professor of wetland ecology hired by us and other local groups to assess the project’s damage:

“Many times more acres of wetland will be impacted, and the impacts will continue to worsen for many years to come.”

“The project as proposed would thus have significant and permanent impacts on the hydrology, soils, vegetation, animals, and recreational and educational values of the Boardman River Valley, and the affected wetlands to the west of the valley, near US-31.”
— Dr. Barbara Madsen, University of Michigan professor of botany and wetland ecology

In closing, we ask the DEQ to remain a partner with the region by denying these wetland-filling permits and allowing local people to continue restoring our natural environment and enhancing our community’s character. That’s a success story worth continuing.

Thank you very much.

Kelly Thayer manages the Instituite's statewide transportation policy reform project. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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