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Limited Land Trade Set For South Fox

New deal faulted by tribe, environmental organizations

December 17, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The disputed swap on South Fox Island would give developer David Johnson some of the tallest fresh water sand dunes in the world, more than a mile of sun-drenched beach, and a rare stand of coastal white cedars more than 400 years old.
BENZONIA — Following more than 20 months of public debate so intense that even Congress intervened, the state Department of Natural Resources and a wealthy private landowner agreed this month to a trade of Lake Michigan shoreline and forest on remote South Fox Island.

The agreement, which was reached on December 7, 2001, is one-third the size of the 600-plus acre land swap that was initially proposed in 2000. If the deal is approved by state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, developer David Johnson will receive 218 acres of the most magnificent waterfront in all of the Great Lakes, including some of the tallest fresh water sand dunes in the world, more than a mile of sun-drenched beach, and a rare stand of coastal white cedars more than 400 years old. In return, the state would get 219 acres of second and third growth pine and rather ordinary beach that Mr. Johnson previously owned and was eager to give away.

K. L. Cool, the director of the DNR, said the deal was negotiated with "the highest degree of care, professionalism and expertise." Mr. Johnson added that his new holdings would provide a "southern buffer" to shoreline he already owns on South Fox and where he plans to build "a home with a sunset view on the western shore."

But environmental organizations and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians noted the striking imbalance in the ecological and economic values of the two parcels and that there are tribal claims and clouded titles to 200 of the 219 acres that the state is scheduled to receive.

The tribe and the Michigan Land Use Institute formally asked Ms. Granholm to review the agreement, and she is considering the request. In addition, the Grand Traverse Band said it was weighing a lawsuit based on environmental and Indian land claims. "If the state trades for those lands with clouded titles and the lands revert to private Indian owners the public could lose access to all of that land," said Brian Upton, the tribe’s attorney.

Of all the scenic places in the Great Lakes, few are as splendid and wild as South Fox Island, a 3,400-acre expanse of high dunes, green forests, and unspoiled beaches about 25 miles off the coast of Leelanau County, Michigan. A third of the land is owned by the state in large parcels dispersed across the island.

In 1988, David Johnson, who earned much of his wealth by converting an old cement factory near Petoskey into the billion-dollar Bay Harbor resort, purchased the other two-thirds of South Island, or 2,204 acres. There Mr. Johnson built Mirada Ranch, a luxurious maritime retreat that sported a paved runway for his fleet of airplanes, a magnificent main house, well-appointed guest houses, and a barn for purebred Tennessee walking horses.

Soon after he bought the land, Mr. Johnson, who is 52, first proposed swapping a portion of his holdings for public land in order to establish a clear boundary. In an interview, Mr. Johnson said trespassing and his family’s safety was his primary concern. "I’ve found strangers, people I didn’t know and didn’t invite, standing in my guest cottages," he said. "I’ve had confrontations on my land with hunters carrying loaded weapons who weren’t happy when I asked them to leave. Trespassing has been a significant issue out there."

But critics, including senior DNR officials, said Mr. Johnson exaggerated the trespass and safety issues and that the various swap proposals would have unfairly benefited him at the public’s expense.

Mr. Johnson sweetened the deal in 2000 by offering to trade 665 acres he owned for 625 acres of state-protected land. The proposal would have given Mr. Johnson the southern two-thirds of the island including a particularly beautiful 115-acre parcel with an historic lighthouse and a mile of breathtaking beach. The lighthouse and beach had once belonged to the federal government. The state took possession in 1971 after it signed a binding agreement and a deed restriction that said the United States would retain the authority to review and approve any new change in ownership.

DNR Director Cool jumped at Mr. Johnson’s proposal. He even accompanied Mr. Johnson to a meeting with federal wildlife officials in Minnesota, who were needed to sign off on the exchange. In December 2000, despite scant public comment, Mr. Cool formally approved the swap.

By that time, though, the DNR director’s support for Mr. Johnson and the land deal had generated a wave of public opposition. Environmental organizations, the Grand Traverse Band, and hunting groups were surprised by the state’s extraordinary devotion to an agreement that was so obviously one-sided in favor of a private landowner. In exchange for some of the most magnificent maritime real estate in the entire Great Lakes region, the public would get lands and forest of far lower economic, scenic, and ecological value.

Why, critics asked, was the state fighting so fiercely on Mr. Johnson’s behalf? The answer, say the swap’s opponents, is largely told by political influence. Mr. Johnson is a close political ally of Michigan Governor John Engler and one of the Republican party’s most generous donors. Since 1987, he’d given more than $100,000 to state and national GOP causes, according to public records, including a $20,000 gift in 2000 to the Republican National Committee.

Although he confirmed making the donations, Mr. Johnson denied repeatedly that his campaign gifts had any effect on the DNR or the Engler Administration. "It is ludicrous to think that this somehow ‘buys’ influence, especially with a man of Governor Engler’s integrity," he wrote in a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As grassroots opposition mounted, Democratic members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation intervened. Senator Debbie Stabenow was joined by Senator Carl Levin, Representative David Bonior, and Representative Bart Stupak in sponsoring a proposal to block the trade of the lighthouse and the surrounding 115 acres pending a full review and authorization by Congress. The measure, part of the Interior Appropriations bill, was signed into law by President Bush on November 5, 2001.

Two days later, Mr. Johnson withdrew his swap plan and offered another that was considerably less ambitious. "When the pending exchange process started almost a year ago, we thought an appropriate balance had been struck after exhaustive negotiations," said Mr. Johnson. "In the ensuring year, the attractiveness of the exchange in terms of our goals has eroded considerably."

There’s a central reason for that, said critics. "In my opinion, this whole South Fox deal smells of political corruption of the blatant variety," Bill Edwards, a retired DNR conservation officer and the agency’s leading steward of South Fox Island, wrote in a column in the North Woods Call. "It really hurts to see a hard working reputable department selling its soul like this."

Keith Schneider, a nationally-prominent environmental journalist, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. For more of the Institute’s first-rate journalism and commentary see www.mlui.org. Keith is reachable at keith@mlui.org.

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