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Tanner Takes The Stand

Former DNR gives court a lesson in ecology

February 1, 1998 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Years before he became a renowned fisheries biologist and the director of the Department of Natural Resources during the Milliken Administration, Dr. Howard Tanner was just an eager kid with a bike, a fishing rod, and a summertime destination: the exquisite Cedar River in Antrim County where he caught his first trout.

"From our house to the river was only a few miles," said Tanner, 74, who was raised in Mancelona and Bellaire. "I’d ride out on the gravel roads. I’d walk the banks and fish down through the cedar swamps. It was a place that kind of grabbed you. It amazes me to see how little it’s changed."

It is the random events that drive the human spirit. Tanner spent so much time along the Cedar that the peace of the place settled on him. The river expressed the essence of wildness and nature. Last November, in a court room in Antrim County, Tanner came home to defend those ideals in a crucial lawsuit brought by Friends of the Cedar River Watershed that could reestablish the authority of environmental law in northern Michigan.

At issue is a proposal by Shanty Creek Resort to dramatically increase the amount of water it takes from the Cedar to make snow for new ski runs and to irrigate a new Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course. In court, Shanty Creek executives said that competition was driving them to get bigger and their scientists testified that taking more water from the river would cause no harm. In short, the theme of the testimony was that the pursuit of wealth was inherently virtuous. It increased the well-being of the community without causing damage.

It is precisely this professed notion of business innocence, however, that is at the core of virtually every one of the conflicts over natural resource development that are now boiling in northern Michigan. Encouraged by a development-at-any cost policy coming from Lansing, the north country is being sytematically carved up for strip malls, new roads, oil and gas wells, giant subdivisions, golf courses, mini marts and the rest.

Tanner says he is saddened and disturbed by what is happening because he knows something about public responsibility. His father was the sheriff of Antrim County. And during the 1970s and early 1980s he was the environmental point man for an administration that viewed its responsibiltites much differently. Under his watch as DNR director, the 22,000-acre Jordan Valley was put off limits to industrial development to preserve its scenic character. The Natural Resources Trust Fund, financed by oil and gas royalties, was established to buy recreational land. The Boardman River was safeguarded as a state natural river.

Thus, when he took the stand in Judge Thomas Power’s court room, Tanner set out not only to methodically describe the havoc Shanty Creek’s plan would cause in the river he loved, he also wanted to make a point about the political arrogance that made it possible.

The Cedar, Tanner said, is an exceptional home for trout. It has stability in water flow, depth, temperature and velocity. Its cold waters support the plants, aquatic critters, hiding places, and pools that nurture trout during every phase of their lives. Trout eggs are protected by the river’s polished gravel. Superior nursery areas provide fry and fingerlings ample food and cover from predators.

If Shanty Creek ever turns on its new pumps, said Tanner, it would set in motion a downward spiral of biological events. As the river’s depth dropped, the shallow areas, where fry and fingerlings live, would freeze. Plants that support trout food would die. Fry would be forced to move to new feeding areas and become even more vulnerable to predators.

Tanner’s testimony was the deciding factor in the hearing. On Nov. 5, Circuit Court Judge Power ruled that Friends of the Cedar had sufficiently shown that Shanty Creek’s proposal was in violation of two state environmental laws. He issued an order that blocked the water diversion until a full trial is held late next spring. And Judge Power took special care to commend the former DNR director for delivering such a "persuasive" presentation. Environmentalists called Judge Power’s order the most significant court decision in the public interest in northern Michigan in recent memory.

Long known as a cautious scientist and a careful administrator, the Cedar River case has emboldened Tanner. He is moving quickly to take on a new role as an advocate, as intent on protecting his boyhood trout stream as he is in reviving the state’s conservation tradition. "I have not been happy with the way things are going," he said. "Our obligation is to leave this place better than we found it."

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