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A Huge Day For Northern Michigan’s Natural Beauty

A big Y-E-S for Natural Rivers; A big N-O for Boardman bridge

September 12, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
and Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  The EPA said a proposed new road and bridge would violate state and federal law by needlessly ruining crucial wetlands that are essential to the quality and character of the Boardman River.

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — Northern Michigan’s environment, economy, and quality of life received an extraordinary boost today as the state Department of Natural Resources formally protected the wild character of two beautiful rivers, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighed in to block a new bridge and road from ruining a third.

In Munising, DNR Director K. L. Cool formally added the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers to the state’s list of Natural Rivers, the first such designations since 1988. The action comes after years of work by the department and a coalition of conservation organizations to apply protections under the 1970 Natural River Act to two of the cleanest streams in the state.

Meanwhile, the federal Environmental Protection Agency asked the state Department of Environmental Quality to reject a plan to bridge the Boardman River south of Traverse City. The EPA said the proposed bridge and road is poorly designed and would needlessly damage wetlands, wildlife habitat, and water. The EPA action could lead to the end of the Grand Traverse County Road Commission’s bid to build the $40 million project.

New Governor’s Influence
Today's decisions to shield three of Michigan's best rivers confirm the growing influence of northern Michigan's  environmental and conservation organizations and the thousands of citizens who support them. They also reflect a profound shift in attitude about environmental protection and economic development in Michigan that has occurred under Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm.

Ms. Granholm today commended the Natural Rivers safeguards for the Pine and Upper Manistee. “We must protect our rivers and streams for our state’s families and for our state’s future,” she said. “Long ago, I made a commitment to protect our rivers and streams with new initiatives under Michigan’s nationally recognized Natural Rivers Act, so I am particularly pleased to see today’s announcement make my commitment become reality.”

Best Day For Conservation In A Generation
Glen Sheppard, who since 1969 has edited the North Woods Call, a respected conservation newspaper published in Charlevoix, said the Natural Rivers protections and the EPA’s opposition to the Boardman River bridge mark a day in the region’s environmental history not matched since February 20, 1979, when the state Supreme Court blocked the oil industry from drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

“That’s the only thing that would compare to what happened today,” said Mr. Sheppard. “But I need to remind conservationists that they have to be constantly vigilant. There are no final victories in their work. But it’s a damn good day.”

The state DNR and conservation organizations have been working since the mid-1990s to gain formal protection for the Upper Manistee and Pine rivers. The state Natural River Act, enacted in 1970, protects the beauty and character of wild rivers by carefully managing development along river banks. Fourteen rivers have been protected under the law, but none since 1988. The program fell into disfavor during the 12-year administration of former Republican Governor John Engler, whose record of environmental stewardship was widely criticized. 

DNR Protects Two Rivers
In approving protections for the Pine and Upper Manistee as Michigan’s 15th and 16th Natural Rivers, Mr. Cool noted that more than 100 meetings were held to craft the proposals. The plans were presented at nearly two dozen informational and public comment meetings statewide. More than 1,000 public comments were recorded, the agency said, and citizens supported the designations by a three-to-one margin.

“The philosophy of this program speaks to the heart of the DNR’s mission, to protect and preserve Michigan’s natural resources for present and future generations,” Mr. Cool said today. “These proposals were forged through one of the most deliberative, open and inclusive processes I’ve ever been involved with.”

The Pine and Upper Manistee drain an area in northern central Michigan that is among the most rapidly developing in the state. “I am convinced it is wiser and less expensive to preserve these rivers today than to ask our grandchildren to repair them tomorrow,” Mr. Cool said. “I am confident this action will pay dividends for future generations.”

EPA Opposes New Bridge
The Boardman River also was the beneficiary of government action today. The federal EPA’s regional office in Chicago sent a letter on Wednesday to the DEQ severely criticizing the Grand Traverse County Road Commission’s plan to cross the Boardman River valley with a new road and bridge. The EPA said the plan would violate the state and federal wetland protection law by needlessly ruining crucial wetlands that are essential to the quality and character of the Boardman River and surrounding wild lands.

The EPA’s letter, which urged the DEQ to reject the application, was made public today. The DEQ’s decision is expected in October.

The EPA is the third federal and state environmental agency that has recommended denying the road commission’s application to construct the bridge and its approaches. The DEQ received similar letters on July 25 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and on August 27 from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Those two agencies also said the proposed bridge would produce severe environmental damage to the Boardman River, one of the cleanest and most productive in Michigan.  

DEQ Mindful of the Formal Opposition
Skip Pruss, the deputy director of the DEQ, said in an interview that the EPA’s findings and recommendations, along with those of the state DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “all have weight and should have weight in our deliberation for considering the permit.” DEQ officials are meeting in Lansing on September 24 with representatives of the county road commission, including Michael Dillenbeck, its manager.

Mr. Pruss declined to say which way the agency was leaning but noted that only eight times since 1979, when the state Wetland Protection Act was enacted, has Michigan issued a wetland development permit over the EPA’s objection.

Ken Smith, the executive director of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, who has worked since 1987 to block the bridge, said the EPA’s letter was “a turning point.”  

“Building a bridge across the Boardman would have a devastating effect on the river for canoeing, fishing, hikers, you name it,” said Mr. Smith, who also is the co-founder of the Coalition For Sensible Growth, a local citizen activist group formed in 1996 to develop an alternative transportation plan. “It’s a beautiful river and a very unusual asset to have so close to a major city. It would be just criminal to put a highway across it.”

Bridge Proponents Resigned
Gary Harsch, the planner for Garfield Township who first mapped the route of the proposed road and bridge through his township in 1977 and has supported it ever since, said the EPA decision may mean “it’s back to the drawing board.”

“It sounds like what they are saying is that the current design for the bridge will have too many environmental affects,” said Mr. Harsch. “There was discussion about putting the bridge on pillars but that alternative was significantly more expensive. It’s still up to the state to make a decision.”

Mr. Dillenbeck declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview.

The proposal to cross the Boardman River with a new road and bridge has stirred public discord for 16 years. In 1987, the road commission formally proposed a four-and five-lane highway through the Boardman River valley linking Hartman and Hammond roads just south of Traverse City. The commission proposed to pay for the project, and several other road improvements, with a property tax increase that was soundly rejected by 71 percent of voters.

A History of Strife
In 1991 the state Department of Transportation jumped into the fray when it received $4.5 million from Congress to evaluate a 30-mile highway bypass of Traverse City. In February 1996, the state transportation department and the county road commission publicly unveiled the route of the bypass, which included a road and bridge across the Boardman River that was essentially the same as the 1987 proposal. 

That plan prompted a coalition of public interest groups, among them the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Coalition for Sensible Growth, to immediately announce their opposition. The groups said the project would be a runway for more sprawl, invite more traffic congestion and not less, and degrade the Boardman River valley.

The highway, said opponents, also would cross the valley precisely where state and local governments are expanding a natural preserve that is used by thousands of people and supports healthy populations of brown trout, bald eagles, mink, otter, and other wildlife.

In 1998, the groups worked with citizens and several local governments to develop Smart Roads: Grand Traverse Region, an alternative transportation plan. Smart Roads, published in 1999, calls for fixing and better connecting existing roads across the region, modernizing public transit, and directing growth to already developed areas. At the center of the Smart Roads plan is a proposal to fix the existing county-owned Cass Road bridge, less than a mile upstream from the proposed location of the new bridge. The Smart Roads alternative is far less costly and preserves the region’s natural environment, say its proponents.

The state abandoned the highway bypass proposal in 2001 because of the high price – at least $300 million – and the environmental damage it would cause. The road commission, though, continued to press for a new  Boardman River bridge, and used the balance of the $4.5 million appropriated in 1991 to study and design the project. 

In 2002 the opponents expanded their coalition to include the Sierra Club, and All the Way to the Bay and sued the road commission in state circuit court to halt the project. The lawsuit was dismissed as premature pending the state DEQ’s decision on the road commission’s application for a wetland development permit.

Federal Agency Confirms Critic's View
The EPA letter, as well as those from DNR, and the Fish & Wildlife Service essentially validate the arguments made by conservation organizations.

“The EPA has concluded that the road commission's permit application does not meet federal standards,” said James Olson, a Traverse City attorney who represents the bridge’s opponents. “Legally, the permit application can not be approved by the DEQ and, if for any reason it is approved, the EPA can object and send the permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for review under the federal guidelines.

“Practically, the road commission has to finally face the alternatives that exist to address traffic and land use problems and at the same time stay away from the Boardman River,” Mr. Olson said.

Traverse City Mayor Margaret Dodd, who also has been an active opponent, saluted the EPA’s findings. “In my opinion, and that of the Traverse City Planning Commission and City Commission, this was never the solution to the region's traffic concerns,” said Ms. Dodd. “After $1 million in studies and designs and a decade later, no other agency — with the exception of the road commission itself — has found it acceptable either. It seems the verdict is in.”

Keith Schneider, an editor and journalist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s deputy director. Kelly Thayer, a journalist, is the transportation project manager at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach them at keith@mlui.org, or kelly@mlui.org.

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