Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Treasure Island

Treasure Island

Campaign finance could pay off in South Fox swap

March 1, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It's not often that a raucous dispute involving fabulous wealth, raw insider influence, and an island paradise bursts into full public view. But that is precisely what's unfolding in Michigan on two wild and remote northern Lake Michigan atolls, South Fox and North Fox Islands, which lie roughly 25 miles off the coast of Leelanau County.

At issue is whether David Johnson, a prominent developer and one of the state Republican Party's most important contributors, will be successful in his bid to swap 665 acres he owns on South Fox Island for 625 acres of state-protected land on the island. Mr. Johnson owns two-thirds of South Fox Island in a patchwork of parcels and, until the beginning of the year, owned all of North Fox Island. He seeks to consolidate his South Fox holdings in order to eliminate what he contends is a serious trespassing problem.

The swap would give 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. In 1971 the Department of Natural Resources signed a binding agreement and deed restriction with the federal government that said "the property shall not be sold, leased, assigned, or otherwise disposed except to another eligible governmental agency that the Secretary of Interior agrees in writing can assure the continued use and maintenance of the property for public park or recreational purposes."

At the time, senior DNR officials said they were thrilled with their new piece of Great Lakes shoreline. "Public ownership of shoreline is valuable beyond measure," wrote D.H. Jenkins, chief of the agency's research and development division in a 1969 memorandum. "Any public official that suggests selling any Great Lakes shoreline should be impeached."

Eager to Please
What's so extraordinary now, a generation and a half later, is the Engler administration's eagerness to complete the swap. With obvious devotion to Mr. Johnson, the DNR is intent on breaking the deed restriction that covers the island's southern tip. DNR Director K.L. Cool personally accompanied Mr. Johnson to a crucial meeting in September with federal wildlife officials in Minnesota who must approve the deal. The DNR also applied on Mr. Johnson's behalf to the Department of Environmental Quality to build a 1,400-foot road across the state land that Mr. Johnson hopes to own. The proposed road would connect Johnson's land to the lighthouse and traverse protected sand dunes, endangered piping plover habitat, and a rare old growth stand of hemlocks.

Senior DNR and DEQ leaders say their actions have nothing to do with politics and that another clause in the federal agreement allows them to transfer South Fox land to approved third parties. They assert that hunters and other visitors will benefit from consolidation of all public lands on the north end of South Fox Island. DNR director Cool also argues that Mr. Johnson would be a better steward of the land than the state, which citizens have entrusted with the job of public land management.

Mr. Johnson promised not to develop the land and said he would put several hundred ecologically valuable acres in a temporary conservation easement to aid in the recovery of the piping plover, a federally endangered shore bird. He also put an enticing bargaining chip on the table: 836-acre North Fox Island, which he bought for $1.3 million in 1994. The DNR has argued that the chance to own North Fox Island is worth the loss of prime South Fox land. The state took Mr. Johnson up on his offer at the end of 2000 and paid him $2.2 million for North Fox Island.

Elite Circles
Almost from the moment he purchased his island getaway 13 years ago, Mr. Johnson made it clear to state officials that he wanted to own all of South Fox Island. He now owns 2,204 acres, or two-thirds of the island. There he built Mirada Ranch, a remote maritime Shangri-La complete with a splendid main house, an airstrip for his private planes, an immense barn to house purebred Tennessee walking horses, and at least four luxurious guesthouses.

Mr. Johnson, who earned his reputation and much of his wealth by converting an old cement factory in Petoskey into the billion-dollar Bay Harbor resort, is well known in political circles as a man not easily daunted.

His personal history includes a diving accident in 1978 that almost left him paralyzed but from which he fought back to a nearly full recovery. His political history is told in large campaign contributions to Republican candidates and the party, more than $100,000 since 1987, according to public records. Mr. Johnson is one of the donors whom Gov. John Engler and other party officials can reliably tap for large gifts, including a $20,000 donation last July to the Republican National Committee.

Critics of the proposed swap say Mr. Johnson's campaign contributions are the reason the state is working so diligently to break a longstanding, legal commitment to protect a public resource.

"Contributors who have special interests and seek inside decision-making without public respect and consideration are inherent in our current campaign finance system," said Johnston Mitchell, director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a research and policy group in Lansing. "Mr. Johnson is a big time contributor. This direct influence of the Engler administration is endemic to the system and needs to be stopped."

Decision Soon
From the state's point of view, the proposed swap "would allow improved public access to public lands, provide for more efficient management opportunities for state ownership, and protect both dune areas and piping plover habitat through written agreements," said David A. Yankee, a supervisor in the DNR's Real Estate Division. "Public island ownership would increase with the acquisition of North Fox Island."

In December, director Cool gave state approval for the swap of public and private land on South Fox Island. The next step is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which plans to hold public hearings this winter in Leelanau and Charlevoix counties. In the meantime, environmental, recreation, and conservation organizations, as well as the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, are aggressively opposed to the swap as it is currently proposed. They argue that, although some aspects of the deal appear beneficial, there are still too many other parts of the deal that diminish the public interest.

"The thing is hunters are so attached to this island," said Nancy Robertson, a member of the South Fox Island Public Hunters Club. "There is no other deer hunting that is like it. You're in a wilderness situation. Nobody can drive up in a pickup truck. It's your hunting camp. Mr. Johnson perceives he has a problem, which he essentially created himself. We just can't see that the public should give up such big chunks of land plus 1.2 miles of beach to solve his problem."

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org