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Not The Typical Urban Stream

It’s clean, quiet, full of fish.

March 5, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Rogue River stretches through residential neighborhoods like the Rogue Ridge subdivision in Rockford, all the way maintaining its exceptional water quality and lively fishery.
Rockford, MI -- Anglers eager to hook some of the Great Lakes finest steelhead will travel in the coming weeks from around the Midwest to wade in Michigan’s rushing Rogue River. Sport fishing enthusiasts know the clean, cold currents of the Rogue and its spring-fed tributaries sustain a robust brown trout population and attract an exceptional fall salmon run. But the spring migration of steelhead — the silvery-sided, lake roaming relative of the rainbow trout — makes the Rogue one of Michigan’s more popular fishing streams.

What’s even more spectacular about the Rogue, though, is its location. The stream is born in the wind-stirred forest of the Rogue River State Game Area. From there it stretches through residential neighborhoods, past industrial factories, and into sprawling Grand Rapids — Michigan’s second largest city — all the way maintaining its exceptional water quality and lively fishery.

In almost every place in Michigan and across the nation such heavy real estate development pressure has damaged rivers and run out wildlife with erosion and pollution. But west Michigan residents had the foresight nearly 30 years ago to put Michigan’s Natural Rivers Act to the test and enacted permanent safeguards that protect the Rogue’s scenic and recreational value. They adopted limitations on home building, brush cutting, and other uses of land throughout the river’s corridor.

Today, even as Grand Rapids’ metropolitan boundary reaches further into the countryside, the Rogue River is a testament to sound public policy and courageous political decisions. It remains a wild and wooded natural attraction for visitors and residents alike and enhances the region’s economy and quality of life.

"People know the Rogue is a special river," says Bernice Oosternouse, the proprietor of a one-room riverside outfitter known as O’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Rockford. "Come March everyone will start calling for a fish report. They’ll rush right out here as soon as they hear the steelhead are running."

Mrs. O, as she’s known to Rogue River regulars, sponsors a contest in the spring to see who can net the biggest steelhead. This isn’t worm dunking for sunfish. This is a Great Lakes sport fishing tradition. A hooked steelie — lured by anything from hand tied flies to marshmallows — will dart, jump, and flop in the air hoping to snap its opponent’s line or patience.

"Last year’s winner weighed in ‘round 18 pounds," Mrs. Oosterhouse says. "And that’s not unusual."

Neither are the hoards of rod-n-reel wielding recreators who stand elbow to elbow in the Rogue’s shallow amber waters. Mrs. O’s friendly steelhead fishing challenge attracted nearly 70 participants last year. Devoted anglers pitched camp on the blacktop behind her shop, sleeping sheltered by pickup truck toppers as if roughing it for a weekend in the Northwood.

Far from it. Rockford and the entire region immediately north of Grand Rapids is an increasingly urban environment. "The Rogue is unique because it’s close to an urban area, yet we’re still able to maintain a quality trout fishery," says Amy Harrington, a fish biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Ms. Harrington says the DNR artificially stocks game fish in the Rogue and that fluctuating water temperature is a serious issue, as it is for any stream. Warm storm water runs off parking lots, roof tops, and other impervious surfaces and, on occasion, can force the Rogue’s various trout species to hide out in the cooler waters of upstream tributaries. But for the most part icy springs and vegetated riverbanks keep the stream shaded, clean, and cool.

The typical urban riverbank — stripped of vegetation, crowded by homes and businesses, and covered by water resistant concrete surfaces — fails to slow erosion, filter pollution, or provide shelter for wildlife.

Another once rural Grand Rapids-area community learned this costly lesson in the mid 1990’s. Alpine Township’s York Creek once sported 29 species of game fish. But relatively unchecked development over the past two decades ultimately choked the stream with sand and pollution. Now only the mighty minnow survives, and the cost to attempt restoration of just one mile of York Creek approached $1 million.

In 1970 the state Legislature created the Michigan Natural Rivers Program to help communities avoid these problems. The law enables local communities to work with the state DNR and maintain pristine rivers and tributaries by setting reasonable restrictions on commercial and residential development.

Citizens throughout the Rogue River system immediately embraced the visionary program and in 1973 the Rogue became the third waterway to be designated a state Natural River. Local townships coordinated their zoning and land use regulations to ensure that, among other things, buildings and septic systems would be setback 150 feet from the river’s edge. Today, 132 miles of Rogue River remains locally zoned with environmentally sensitive ordinances.

"Natural River designation is not stopping any development," Harrington says. "But it has helped guide development in a way that protects the river. Beyond that the program doesn’t have a whole lot of authority."

Michigan’s Natural Rivers Program protects 14 of the state’s world class waterways, all of which, like the Rogue, offer a piece of the region’s natural heritage — a pure Great Lakes fishing experience. The Au Sable River, designated in 1987, is considered by many the best trout fishery in the Midwest. The Pere Marquette, designated in 1978, is a nationally known blue ribbon trout stream.

Citizens now hope to add two more of the state’s nationally known fisheries to the list of protected rivers. The Pine River Watershed Coalition, an organization of nine different citizen conservation groups, and the Upper Manistee River Association recently launched a campaign to designate both the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers as new Natural Rivers.

The Pine, flowing through central Michigan, supports a unique and self-sustaining population of rainbow trout. And the Manistee River, born in Antrim County and flowing 232 miles to Lake Michigan, holds 80 species of fish, including the threatened lake sturgeon and pugnose shiner.

Michigan’s native game fish the grayling once inhabited the Manistee River the way steelhead continue to thrive in the Rogue River. But heavy logging of the river’s banks and the ensuing erosion, which continues to fill the stream with sand to this, day drove the sensitive grayling to extinction. Citizens hope to implement the Natural Rivers Program on both the Pine and Upper Manistee and avoid further degradation with basic stream management.

"The Natural Rivers Program is not a cure all," says Amy Harrington. "But it helps. And every little bit helps."

Andrew Guy is an environmental journalist and grassroots organizer based in the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at
<andy@mlui.org>. For more of the Institute’s first-rate environmental journalism, see <www.mlui.org>.

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