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Opposition to Resort's Grab at Cedar River Shows Strength of Conservation Movement

Shanty Creek rebuffed

September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The Friends of the Cedar River Watershed have organized to prevent Shanty Creek Resort from (a) pumping millions of gallons of water out of the river to irrigate a new golf course and to make snow for its ski hills and (b) cutting down acres of forest along the Cedar's banks to use the river as a golf course water hazard.

At dusk along the Cedar River, the melody of clear water surging past polished rocks gives depth to the stillness and intimacy that have always drawn people to this uncommonly wild place. Just ten miles long, and seemingly narrow enough in spots to jump from one forested bank to the other, the Cedar is a remnant of the rough and stubborn natural legacy that once defined northern Michigan.

No longer. Week by week, bulldozers rip away at northern Michigan's open fields, cut down dense green forests, and dig into untouched shorelines. This paroxysm of development is driven by a view among some business people that the region's natural heritage is nothing more than their economic amenity. It has prompted a clash over values -- between those who view natural resources as a treasured legacy, and others who seek merely to exploit for personal gain -- unlike anything the region has ever experienced.

One of the places where the debate is most fully formed is along the Cedar River. Shanty Creek Resort in Antrim County wants to pump millions of gallons of water out of the river to irrigate a new golf course, and to make snow for its ski hills. The resort also wants to cut down acres of forest along the Cedar's banks in order to use the river as a water hazard for two new golf holes.

In an all too typical decision, last October the leaders of both the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources issued permits for the projects, saying the environmental effects would be minimal.

In response, Larry Rochon, a property owner on the Cedar, joined with his neighbors and organized Friends of the Cedar River Watershed. The group raised enough money to file a lawsuit against Shanty Creek to stop the water diversion and the golf holes that crossed the river.

All their work paid off in November, when Judge Thomas Power of the Antrim County Circuit Court ruled that Shanty Creek's water diversion was unlawful, and issued a preliminary injunction blocking the action. A full trial is scheduled for this spring.

Judge Power's decision was the clearest and most satisfying court ruling for the public interest in northern Michigan in recent memory. It upheld the principles of sound stewardship embodied in state environmental law. And it was a sharp rebuke of Shanty Creek's profligate plan and the Engler Administration's strange and disagreeable environmental program.

Certainly the scientific case for protecting the river is powerful. Dr. Howard Tanner, a freshwater biologist and former director of the DNR, testified in the Shanty Creek case that withdrawing so much water from the Cedar River, particularly in winter, would cause freezing in the shallow areas and kill plants and small organisms. That would set off such a destructive series of events up the food chain, he said, that fish mortality would increase dramatically in one of the state's finest trout streams.

The legal arguments also are persuasive. The 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act prohibits any action that has the potential to cause "pollution, impairment, or destruction" of the state's natural resources. The 1974 Inland Lakes and Streams Act prohibits any activity that has the potential to harm a rare resource. Both laws say that if ecological damage from a project is likely, the applicant must evaluate the feasible and prudent alternatives.

In Shanty Creek's case, the resort could drill new water wells, as every other destination resort does in northern Michigan. And there is plenty of room for two golf holes without crossing the river.

Given such arguments, Shanty Creek now has the opportunity to act responsibly and move back from the river. All available evidence indicates that doing so would not damage the resort's business at all.

More than anything else, Judge Power's ruling was an affirmation of reasoned citizen advocacy, the sort of grass roots work that has become common in northern Michigan:

• Drilling in the Jordan River Valley was blocked by public opposition.

•A plan to swap private land for public land in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore fell apart after citizens organized and brought their objections to federal officials.

• In Grand Traverse County, residents have dramatically slowed the progress of a proposed 30-mile, $300- million highway bypass by raising formidable questions about its usefulness and cost.

The question now before northern Michigan's business leaders, and their friends in public office, is whether they will amend their development-at-any-cost views. Doing so would be a welcome sign that they are truly looking at the bottom line. Natural resources, after all, are the real foundation of northern Michigan's communities and economy.

CONTACT: Larry Rochon, Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, P.O. Box 652, Bellaire, MI 49615. Tel. 616-347-1721.

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