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A Torrent of Promise

Michigan’s natural rivers attracting strong civic attention

January 21, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The Pine River, which flows through miles of northern Michigan forest, is threatened with logging, housing construction, and other development that can degrade fish and wildlife habitat. The Pine River Watershed Coalition is part of a flourishing grassroots movement to protect and enhance the Pine and the state’s other world-class waterways.
Three years after property rights ideologues forced the state to shelve a promising plan to permanently protect the forests, trout fishery, and wildlands along the banks of the magnificent Pine and Manistee Rivers, an alliance of conservation and angler organizations has developed a strategic plan to revive the state’s work.

The campaign, led by the nine-member Pine River Watershed Coalition and the Upper Manistee River Association, is part of a flourishing grassroots movement to protect and enhance Michigan’s world-class waterways.

"Urban sprawl and other development within the watershed is rapidly growing and will continue to increase in the coming years," says Dick Shotwell, president of the Pine River Association, a 30-year-old group of property owners living on or near the Pine River in central Michigan. "Unlike the rivers in southern Michigan, we have a unique opportunity to protect our rivers from harmful and unwise land use."

The Manistee and Pine rivers, which flow through miles of northern Michigan forests, are two of the most popular fishing and canoeing streams in the Midwest. Both, however, are threatened with logging, housing construction, and other development that can degrade fish and wildlife habitat. In the early 1990s, as part of the pioneering Michigan Natural Rivers program, the state Department of Natural Resources sought to introduce to both streams permanent safeguards to protect their wild and scenic character. That effort, however, was stalled when a small group of private landowners, arguing that new restrictions were unnecessary and a violation of their property rights, eroded local support for the plan.

Now support for implementing basic stream protection along the Pine and Manistee rivers again gains momentum. The Pine River Coalition has partnered with the Upper Manistee River Association and formally organized during the past year a regional campaign to pursue Natural Rivers designation for both the Pine and upper reaches of the Manistee. Currently, 11 citizen organizations, including the Pine River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, actively participate in the effort.

The campaign comes during an extraordinary period of restoration for Michigan’s waterways. The shift to a service-oriented, high-tech economy has prompted a fundamental change in the relationship between citizens and their rivers. In a sharp departure from 19th and 20th century thinking, citizens and elected leaders of the 21st century now understand that well-thought-out river management plans — initiatives that encourage recreation, scenic beauty, as well as fish and wildlife habitat — are essential to a community’s prosperity.

"There is so much to gain," says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit group founded in 1973 to protect and restore the nation’s waterways. "Escalating property values are only the tip of the iceberg. Businesses know they can get an edge if they are headquartered in an appealing area and the combination of sunlit waters, people fishing along the banks, and families canoeing is irresistibly positive. In the tough competition for talented employees, you can be sure companies are on the lookout for appealing water and recreation."

Simply put: People want fishable, swimable, enjoyable waterways. The trend is unmistakable in Michigan, where a river revolution appears to be shifting into high gear. Within the past year:

• Obsolete dams have been removed from celebrated sporting streams like the Pine, near Cadillac, and the Muskegon, as it winds through Big Rapids.

• The city of Jackson brought the Grand River back into the light of day by removing its "cap" — a cement cover built in 1937 that literally entombed the state’s longest river through the city’s central business district.

• Congress designated 18 miles of the Detroit River as North America’s first International Wildlife Refuge. Currently, at least 10 major clean up initiatives work to enhance the Motor City’s most important natural asset.

• And along the Rouge River, another historic southeast Michigan stream, a notable group of public and private stakeholders in the Detroit region continued to restore a once hopelessly polluted river and improve the surrounding land for recreation, preservation, and sensible industrial use.

These and many other ongoing restoration efforts throughout the Great Lakes state confirm that maintaining natural and healthy rivers is a top priority for Michigan residents. Lawmakers anticipated this change in attitude 32 years ago when they passed the Natural River Act. The 1970 law enables the state Department of Natural Resources to work with local communities and maintain pristine rivers by setting reasonable restrictions on home building, brush cutting, logging, and other uses of land along stream banks. As a result of the program, 14 rivers, including the Pere Marquette and the Au Sable in rural northern Michigan, remain unspoiled by pollution and haphazard development.

The Natural Rivers program also has enabled growing metropolitan regions like Grand Rapids to protect and showcase streams such as the Rogue and the Flat as attractive urban amenities, giving them a competitive economic advantage over other areas in the nation without comparable water resources.

And while regions such as west Michigan reap the measurable benefits of practical river protection, communities that neglect their waterways literally pay to restore local streams to something that resembles "natural." Along the Rouge River, for example, more than $500 million dollars have been invested in restoration initiatives since 1992.

Certainly water quality, wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty remain the traditional and central themes of such expensive river projects. But cities have a stake too. Detroit, for example, intends to revitalize its downtown, build stronger, more appealing neighborhoods, and even reverse urban sprawl through improved stream stewardship. By taking advantage of its rivers and its waterfront, as Chicago has already done, Detroit hopes to lure modern corporations and boost its troubled economy principally by providing more attractive places to live, work, and play.

But even as Michigan is in the midst of a river revolution, the future of the Pine and Manistee rivers remains uncertain. To advance Natural Rivers designation, the Pine River Watershed Coalition and the Upper Manistee River Association have drafted a strategy to promote a three-year-old draft Natural Rivers management plan as well as inform citizens, civic leaders, and the media of the challenges and opportunities confronting Michigan’s unique river systems.

Out of their work, they hope, will come a clear and powerful message about the need to curb and improve patterns of development along the state’s most beautiful and ecologically significant streams.

"Natural Rivers designation is the single most important thing we can do to benefit the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers," Dick Shotwell says. "Designation will help preserve the health and pristine beauty of our rivers for years to come."

Michigan has not designated a new Natural River since 1988, when the Upper Peninsula’s Fox River was last designated. Today, 25 streams initially proposed for protection more than three decades ago remain vulnerable to current development trends. But keeping rivers lined with trees, filled with fish, and accessible to the public is a top community priority in Michigan.

"We support designation of the Pine and Upper Manistee river systems," says Steve Sutton, manager of the state’s Natural Rivers program. "The department continues the planning process."

Indeed, protecting the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers with Natural River status is the next logical step in Michigan’s river revolution.

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>.
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