Wednesday, August 22, 2012


 Wilderness Act Ripple

by Nancy Hulka of Muskegon

Drop a stone in a calm lake and the circular ripples radiate outward gently touching objects in their path; a floating leaf, fallen feather or scampering insect. Like a dropped stone labeled “preservation” the ripple effect of the 1987 Michigan Wilderness Act has positively touched Michigan’s most fragile eco-systems, encircling landscapes, flora, and fauna with a growing protective shield that will float through time.

The ripple of the Wilderness Act also reaches the people who seek to peacefully recreate or revitalize in a natural landscape free of human-made attractions or distractions.

The protected setting having touched me the most is the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area, were I’m always thankful a place exists to enjoy Lake Michigan and irreplaceable sand dunes without being surrounded by vacation homes or commercial establishments.

At Nordhouse I laced up my hiking boots, feeling comfortable and safe enough, to pursue solo backpacking trips, and with the ripple of each successful adventure, carried confidence back to the developed world.

Wanting to share my love for Nordhouse, I introduced my future husband to the area where the sights and sounds of a protected environment encircled us. We learned about one another while exploring woodlands that transition to towering golden dunes kissed by Lake Michigan.

We hiked through maple, beech and oak forests with eyes soaking in the color of native wildflowers, such as orange wood lily, white trillium and yellow trout lily. We were treated to hooting owls, scampering chipmunks, leaping deer and stately Great Blue Heron gliding overhead.

The deep blue trailside huckleberries and shimmering blackberries offered our palette a taste of nature’s confections. Our ears delighted at hearing a symphony of waves rumbling in a strong west wind or the hypnotizing under song of water lapping at the shore in a gentle breeze. Fine grains of beach sand gently tingled our bare feet as we walked for miles and talked about the future on a sun lit shore. In the evenings the sky seemingly put on a show just for us by painting sunsets in fiery reds or in oranges outlined by purple hues.

On the shore we searched for striking pieces of colorful beach glass, broken glass with edges polished smooth by Lake Michigan waves and sand. The pieces of polished glass are a reminder that given an opportunity nature can begin to reclaim the damage done by humans.

Embraced in the spreading circle of Nordhouse’s beauty my husband I have been touched to now advocate for land conservancy, habitat preservation and energy conservation. We hope our efforts will radiate to help plants, animals and humans, as all life depends upon a healthy eco-system.

The radiating preservation ripple of the Wilderness Act grows bigger with each person who is gently touched by the quiet splender of natural places. Thanks to those forward looking individuals from twenty-five years ago dropping the “preservation stone,”future generations can also discover, explore, learn, and pass on their love for locations such as the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness Area.

Friday, August 17, 2012

To Cheat the Dead River

A Michigan Wilderness Essay Entry by Mike Haas 

           It was a sunny day and the Dead River came into view; it flowed through tall conifers and maples which grew up on its sides.  The waterfall stood to my left roaring in its glory, sparkling in the noonday sun as its water plummeted over 20 feet into a large foamy pool below.  
Across the pool on the wild side of the fall the cliffs raised twice the height of the waterfall with a span of jagged rocks at its base. I jumped into the pool, swam to the other side, and got out.  The slope up the cliff was steep with trees growing up its side, bent from their fight against gravity.  A trail zigzagged through the ferns up and up to the top.  In spots I had to hold on to the trees and pull myself up.
The top of the cliff was spectacular:  standing there I could see the forests canopy, the river stretching through, and the pool below.  The water was pounding, birds sang, and a multitude of insects gave off a loud hum that vibrated the atmosphere
I stood alone at the top, then walked to the edge, backed away, then went back to the ledge, and backed away again.  The edge sloped down at an angle like the ditch on the side of a road, and was awkward to move across.  Unlike the ditch though, the edge dropped down some 40 vertical feet with rocks at the bottom, and the pool beyond the rocks.  My heart beat faster merely at the sight.
            I moved forward.  My stomach clenched, my heard stopped, my mind through away rationality, the edge moved closer and closer, my feet moved faster and faster.  I pushed off, there was a single moment where my forward momentum held me above the earth, a single entity suspended in open space, and then gravity took hold.  The trees became a green blur; the rocks moved away the water got closer and closer as I angled downward.  Wind rushed past.  Closer, closer, closer, faster and faster, the water was right before me, I held my breath, and then the world changed.  It happened so fast that I couldn’t register the switch.  But one moment I was dry and falling through space, the next I was sinking through the pool reaching for the bottom with my toes, but if there was a bottom I did not reach it.  I looked up the sunlight was far above and I kicked towards it, breaking the surface as I shot upward.  I took a long steadying breath.  I was alive.  I was unharmed.  Adrenalin pumped through me.  The current pulled on my sides and I drifted triumphantly for a moment before swimming to the rocky ledge in awe. The river did not claim me I had cheated it, and I had cheated death. I followed the footsteps of the dead river, and survived.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Michigan Wilderness Essay

An entry in the Michigan Chapter's Wilderness Essay Contest

By Gareth d'Haillecourt
As a child I played in the water of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes.   My brother and I built sand castles with swirly bits of dripping sand, forming turrets, trying to beat each other at making the tallest.   I waded and picked stones, and much to the consternation of Mother, carried home many pockets full, sand in the car, my clothes, my shoes. 
As a wild young woman I log rolled my body down a Sleeping Bear dune and almost killed myself, much to the amusement of my friends.  I had no idea it was so dangerous.  As a log I'd have splintered into kindling.  As a human body, I just bruised.

Now I am older, wiser, seasoned maybe.   I look at those dunes and wonder who will come and plow them down to make a golf course.  Who will trump God's creation on this marvelous shore?  There seems to be a disconnect between the beauty of the dunes shining in the sun, the eddies of still water standing in the edges of sand, and the humanity that says "I love this", those who will turn their back when commerce reaches deeply into the heart of a hill.   Are they blind?  

The rolling relief of the dunes is a perfect painting any way you turn.  The bare moments of grasses harshing out its life with wind and dryness becomes art for eternity.  An occasional piece of driftwood or stone becomes a whole new project, something to copy in a drawing and make a landscape for future generations to remember this beautiful wild calm place.  

Art does become this scene.  Mankind doesn't have enough conscience left to leave it untouched.  Maybe this old woman will
roll down the dune again in some future protest if anyone tries, even dares, to molest these beautiful sands.   I will keep a wary eye out for those pirates. But tomorrow I will plan my next trip to enjoy their beauty, lie down in the warm sand and meditate on this gift from Mother Earth.  I will honor her with some art, a blessing, blow all the grains of sand a kiss.  Every grain deserves that. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


 Isle Royale Remembered by Jerry Lang of Muskegon

I remember the first trip my wife and I took to Isle Royale – my favorite Michigan wilderness. There is something mysterious about this chunk of basaltic rock rubbed raw several times by glacial ice, periodically submerged by ancient lakes, historically ravaged for it’s copper ore, and once home to rugged seasonal fishermen.

As I gazed over the bow of the Ranger III at the 42-mile long island rising out the icy waters of Lake Superior, I felt the cares of the everyday world sinking into the wake behind us. A warm breeze carrying the boreal fragrance of sun-warmed balsam fir and spruce wafted over us on approach to the island. Despite an initial sunny welcome, we were fittingly ‘baptized’ into another world by a sudden summer rain shower just as we disembarked at Rock Harbor. 

Being the non-avid campers we are, my wife and I were thankful for the Park Service’s Rock Harbor Lodge on the east end of Isle Royale. By staying at the lodge, we were deprived of bragging rights about enduring blisters, hiking in downpours, and being bitten by blackflies along rugged portages. But we were still imbued by the wilderness feel of the place during our daily daypack and paddle trips.

Our introductory canoe trip was to the western end of Tobin Harbor.  The underwater panorama of sand, stones, sunken logs, and submerged plants changed beneath us with each silent stoke of the paddle while we slowly traveled along the wooded shoreline. We never glimpsed one of island’s resident moose nor heard a wolf howl in the distance; but the enigmatic call of nesting loons often echoed across the water.

We stopped on one of the many ‘boulder islands’ for lunch. It’s amazing how life clings to those granite rocks. Multicolored lichens covered much of the surface with bluebells, goldenrod, and even some small fir and spruce trees sprouting up in the cracks. 

Our second short canoe trip took us across Rock Harbor to nearby Raspberry Island. The boardwalk through a bog on the island offered a close-up view of a variety of carnivorous ‘Little Shop of Horrors plants’ like sundews and purple pitcher plants.

As an entomology graduate student, I studied the tiny non-biting pitcher plant mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose closest relatives inhabit neotropical bromeliads. I’ve been known to use my wife’s turkey baster to suck water out of pitcher plant leaves looking for mosquito larvae. Luckily for my wife and the mosquitoes I had no baster handy on this trip. 

While Isle Royale is an officially designated wilderness area, we were forcefully reminded that the island is surrounded by the wildness of untamed Lake Superior. We encountered gale-force winds with 14-foot high waves on the return trip to Houghton. As most of the passengers gazed up from their barf bags at the mainland shoreline, we all had a new appreciation for our smallness amidst the raw power of planet earth’s wildness encountered right here in Michigan. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the Michigan Wilderness Act

By Dave Dempsey, former staffer for Congressman Bob Carr, who introduced the legislation, and former environmental advisor to Gov. Blanchard.

Wilderness is about memories as much as it is about hopes for the future of humanity and the natural world.  So when I reflect on the 25th anniversary of Michigan’s federal wilderness law, I go back and forward in time all at once.

Wilderness moved from concept to reality for me when I joined a Michigan wilderness tour with Jane Elder, Bill Davis and other Sierrans in August 1981.  Not having backpacked before, I leaned heavily and sheepishly on my companions, who pitched my tent and led me almost by hand through the woods.  I’m glad they did.  

 Mingling with the majesty of the north woods and waters, I fell in love with wilderness and decided it, and environmental protection, would be my vocation as well as my avocation.  I remember, among other things, twilight over Horseshoe Bay, a moment fixed in my mind forever.  Mirroring the fading orange of the sky, the waters of the bay were fringed by gorgeous dark green conifers.  

At the time I hadn’t visited Nordhouse Dunes, the only Lower Peninsula wilderness area in the 1987 act.  I have many times since, and have always been awed – the real awe, not the one that is the root word of today’s overused “awesome” – by the miles of undeveloped dunes.  A few hundred years ago, hundreds of miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline might have looked like that.

 Advocates carry those images and powerful emotions along when they enter a legislative or Congressional committee room to do battle for wilderness.  Of course, it shouldn’t be battle; it should be consensus, for what makes more sense than conserving a small piece of the natural world for the enjoyment and scientific understanding of future generations?

But sense doesn’t always prevail in policymaking.  And so, when my boss, Governor Jim Blanchard, announced his support for Michigan wilderness in 1985, several political forces erupted.  Loudest was the late Senator Joe Mack of Ironwood, who called wilderness “a creeping cancer.”  (Joe also was quoted as saying that a wetland is “wherever a DNR employee takes a piss.”)  Senator Mack fought wilderness legislation every step of the way, and arrested its progress for a time, but ultimately lost the struggle.

But in the meantime, he and allies vilified Sierrans and other wilderness supporters as out-of-touch elitists sticking their nose in the business of northern Michigan.  I know it was tough on many advocates.  When a cause is so personal as well as so public, political epithets can break hearts.  Fortunately, the hearts of the Sierra Club were, and are, strong.

Thinking of the future, I worry about Michigan wilderness. The concept of climate change, let alone the term, is not one of which I knew in 1981.  How it will affect these islands of wilderness hope, I don’t know, but we are still better off with than without them.

There will always be the menace, too, of politicians and special interests who want to roll back wilderness, allow its exploitation, or even sell it off for short-term gain.  I rest easy knowing that the ranks of the Sierra Club will step forward each time the threat arises.

 Like most advocates, I am well aware of the criticism that “wilderness” protection is a futile effort to capture permanently a distorted picture of untouched land that in fact has been altered by humans since the last glaciation. 

To ascribe that notion to modern-day wilderness protection is to stereotype – and distort.  We are not trying to stuff time in a bottle.  We are trying to let the processes of nature work their way largely unimpeded on reserves of land that will also be reserves of our strength.  Inevitably, humankind will influence these lands and related ecosystems indirectly through carbon emissions and resulting consequences and through other means.  That doesn’t diminish the importance of the 1987 Michigan Wilderness Act; it affirms it.  We need these places to help us measure our hearts as well as to measure our science.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

It took many years, and many (often unnamed) people, working together with spirit and resolve, to make the 1987 law happen.  Let’s celebrate them as well as wilderness.  They have protected something truly grand and beautiful for us all to savor.  In the end, we and wilderness are all intertwined.  That mental picture of Horseshoe Bay I cherish?  It includes my friends on that wilderness tour, walking the beach in quiet happiness.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Michigan Wilderness Essay

By Missy Rogers
Our first trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes it seemed to take days to get there. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” We asked the whole way.  When we arrived everything seemed so big. The hills seemed to touch the sky.  The shoreline went on for what seemed like miles. 100 more questions would be asked before it was over.  Lady’s Slipper, Forget Me Not and Iris painted the swamps and brookside blue and yellow along with other flowers. The  wild strawberry and red clover added a red tint to the fields and road side along with other various white yellow and blue flowering plants. On the sand covered hills of the dunes you could spot Pitchers Thistle, now on the endangered plants list.  It grows for 5 to 8 years before it blooms and gets 3 feet tall.  Trudging on up the hills, through all the sun heated sand as the wind blew, the waves rolled in, I finally made it to the cool water.  I truly believed that the water never ended looking out into the blue.

Sometime later I found myself curled up on the car floor as we crossed Mackinac Bridge.   I looked up at the strings. The bridge appeared to be held up by heaven.  As we stopped on the bridge, bravery led me to stick my head out the window.   I looked down to see the grates on the bridge, bravery soon ended and I curled back up on the floor. Quite sometime later we made it to Pictured Rocks.

A picture of my parents at Pictured Rocks fills my memory when I think of this day. Smiles painted their faces as Mother Nature painted the background.  I have only been out of Michigan 2 times in my life and yet I have seen some of the most beautiful spots in the world. I have felt the hot sand in my toes, heard the water fall down a 200 foot cliff where earth’s crust creates a colorful blend of layers and seen the sunset in what seems like an endless horizon. I have been to my little piece of heaven where I know that the sights, smells and sounds that surround me will always take me back to my childhood. I know that  my mother and father will be with me in spirit whenever I visit. It is where I will take my children and be with them in spirit when I am gone. These are the places that we create memories that last an eternity generation  after generation.

Missy Rogers is a mother of 8, from Newaygo, Michigan, wife of a wounded warrior, and blogs at

Rare Moments

A Michigan Wilderness Essay Contest Entry
By Steve Uptegraft

Evening settled gray sliding toward darkness across the forest. Our cross country skis etched softly threw unmarked snow in the Nordhouse Dunes. The cold air felt like snow would start falling at any moment. Other than us, the only movement was a late cardinal, a fleeting flash of red in the otherwise blackening landscape, hurrying to its nest in a cluster of spruce.

“Listen,” I said, stopping in a small, wooded opening.

“To what?” said my friend, looking puzzled. “I can’t hear anything.”

“That’s it,” I replied in a hushed voice. “Listen to the silence. When is the last time you heard it?

“Oh…ya,” he whispered. “Ya.”

We stood perfectly still, almost scared to move or breathe for fear of breaking the silence. It was a magical, mystical event. Then, as quickly as we had found it, it vanished. The cardinal we had seen called out, announcing he was home guarding his nest. Then a breeze rustled the treetops and a branch, overloaded with snow, unburdened itself in a miniature avalanche. An owl, some distance off, hooted a hello to his neighbors, letting them know he was up. Still, we had experienced the moment. A precious moment of natural silence that has become rarer and rarer in our modern world.

A cold, dry snow started falling as we skied back toward the van. I began reflecting on how close we came to losing this last patch of pure, unspoiled wilderness in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I recalled the meetings, letters and articles. Then there were the many state house and senate office calls, committee meetings, and the trips to D.C. with the office visits and testimony at the house subcommittee hearing. And finally, victory, the victory that preserved this spot and the nine others in the Upper Peninsula for future generations to enjoy. A big smile filled my face and warmed my body.

I heard the silence again as we reached the van and began preparing to leaving, but it was somehow different.

“Can you hear that?” I asked.

“The silence, again?” came the reply, figuring that had to be to what I was referring.

“Yes, but no. Can you hearing a faint ringing sound in the background, like little, tiny glass bells?”

My friend stood quiet, listening, perhaps wondering if I was daft. Then a perplexed look came across his face in the light from the van’s overhead.

“Yes,” he finally said. “I think I hear it. What is it?”

“This may sound crazy,” I replied, “but I think it is the sound of the snowflakes hitting together.

“Weird. No way. Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know. I really don’t know”

I have thought about it many times since. Had we really heard the snowflakes colliding? Or was it mutual tinnitus…wishful thinking…madness? I don’t know. But still, we had the peaceful tranquility of the Nordhouse Dunes quiet to give us pause to ponder.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Nordhouse Dunes: 25th year as a wilderness area

Nordhouse Dunes:
a wild place saved, and worth saving

Event marks 25th year as a wilderness area

Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Ludington Daily News

Saturday, May 19 is the Michigan Wilderness Celebration series kickoff, from 11 am to noon. The program celebrates Nordhouse Dunes, featuring key players in the political drama who fought to protect the wilderness areas and be followed by guided and individual hikes of Nordhouse Dunes, Lake Michigan Recreation Area next to Nordhouse Dunes between Ludington and Manistee on the Lake Michigan coast (atthe end of West Forest Trail Road).

The following was written at the request of the Ludington Daily News as part of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Nordhouse Dunes as a wilderness area.

By Jane Elder

I first saw the Nordhouse Dunes when the Forest Service was studying areas that might qualify for federal Wilderness protection. A small shoreline area in the Manistee National Forest made the list, and in the late 1970s, a group of Sierra Club volunteers gathered there on a misty spring weekend to form our own assessment. We hiked along the dune ridge under the tall white pines, strolled along the isolated and pristine beach, and explored inland wetlands filled with choruses of frogs. Nordhouse was indeed special — a remnant of untrammeled forest and shore where the signs of human changes were minimal. You could stand on the beach, and imagine canoes paddled by the first peoples in this region passing along a shore just like this.

The pressures on dunes were enormous. The legislature was battling over a law to protect dunes from indiscriminant sand mining, while development, from condos to golf courses, was pressing in on some of the most desirable shorelines in the region — who doesn’t want a room with a view of a Lake Michigan sunset? Meanwhile, the old mineral rights under the lovely inland forest were itching in the pockets of oil and gas developers.

And so, we rallied, organized, and traveled to Washington, D.C. dozens of times. And, 10 years later, after difficult debates, setbacks, and persevering, in 1987, Congress passed the Michigan Wilderness Act. We safeguarded some of the last of Michigan’s wild gems—a mere 100,000 acres in all. The Nordhouse Dunes, and nine other areas in the Upper Peninsula, became Wilderness, protected from development so their natural ecosystems, wild character, fresh air and clean water could be enjoyed by future generations.

In 2008 I returned to Nordhouse Dunes. It was a splendid summer’s day, and I was savoring the beautiful water and the breeze dancing through the tree tops on the ridge. Warming in the sun after a bracing swim, I noticed a group of young adults gathered down the beach. As they made their way to the waters’ edge, I sawa young man in a military t-shirt remove a prosthetic leg, and his friends helped him into the breaking waves. Moments later they were laughing and shouting and enjoying this magical place. My eyes welled with tears,moved by how this wild shoreline and the embrace of Lake Michigan brought him joy and freedom.

I believe wilderness is worth saving for its own value, but the remarkable gift it gives to people is immeasurable. Whether you see it as the unspoiled beauty of creation, or the wondrous design of nature, or both, wild places speak to something in the human spirit. These places are little sanctuaries in a very complicated world — a space where nature can breathe, and where people can too. The long, hard journey topass the Michigan Wilderness Act was more than worth it. I thank the people of Michigan who knew whythis was important and made it possible. Generations from now, others will thank you, too.

Jane Elder was the Sierra Club’s first full-time chapter director in Michigan, and later served on the national staff for more than 15 years. She now directs the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in Madison, Wisconsin.

Date published: 5-16-2012

Copyright © 2012 Ludington Daily News.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act, part 2

A blog by Anne Woiwode, Sierra Club Michigan Director

Despite the daunting opposition, Sierra Club leaders were determined to gain permanent wilderness designation for the Michigan National Forest RARE 2 areas. In 1984 twenty-one state wilderness bills were passed and signed into law as conservationists nationwide pressed Congress and President Ronald Reagan to act. There was concern that the Michigan wilderness fight had fallen behind at the beginning of 1985, but a determined and growing team of volunteers and staff stepped up the campaign to protect Michigan’s special areas, ramping up the pressure on Congress.

Mackinac Wilderness, Hiawatha National Forest,
from MACKINAC newsletter, 1988
It is hard to get people to take action to protect places they don’t know and may never see. Some unfamiliar with the areas questioned if these places were on par with Isle Royale National Park’s 132,000 acres of wilderness, or the larger, more remote wildernesses in the western US. The largest National Forest wilderness study area, Sylvania, located in the Ottawa National Forest, was just over 18,000 acres, while the smallest RARE 2 sites, both in the Hiawatha National Forest, were Government Island and Round Island, each just a few hundred acres. Because most of the sites were in the UP, there was an additional challenge of connecting the Trolls (people from below the Mackinac Bridge) to this fight so that they would convince their members of Congress to join the fight.

Even those who supported keeping chainsaws and roads out of these areas were concerned that wilderness designation would put a bulls-eye on these places of solitude and natural beauty. Some scientists and Forest Service staff had concerns about potential overuse, particularly in the areas with fragile biological features. Questions were raised about whether wilderness recreation was compatible with scientific study and protection. But during the Reagan Administration, few could realistically argue that rare old growth forests, undeveloped sand dunes, or undisturbed wetlands on National Forest lands would be safe from exploitation without some additional protection.

Using all the grassroots organizing tools available to us at the time, with insight and guidance from Jane Elder and other national Sierra Club staff, we increased our efforts to inform Michiganders about these wonderful areas. Try to imagine the process of generating hundreds of letters to members of Congress in a time predating PCs and the internet. Our best tools were bulk mail alerts, meetings, newsletter articles, and occasionally phone calls. One tool we developed to keep our advocates up to date was a simple typewritten newsletter called ‘Michigan Wilderness Countdown’ that provided regular updates on the progress of the campaign, and urged our volunteers to write to or meet with their members of Congress. Fortunately, members of Congress and their staff actually read and responded to letters from constituents at that time, and we learned that even a small number of concerned constituents can sway an elected official’s vote. Slide shows, presentations at local Group meetings, planning meetings, and outing trips to the proposed wilderness areas fleshed out the organizing tools for our far-flung activists.

One the greatest gifts to this campaign was a set of fantastic black and white photographs of many of the areas taken by C.J. Elfont which he donated for Sierra Club’s use. These compelling photographs, used in leaflets describing the issue, allowed us to get beyond debates about numbers and definitions by making these places real. Another powerful tool was visits to the wilderness areas arranged for Congressman Kildee and Senator Levin by the Forest Service and the Congressional staff. We had worked hard to encourage these trips based on our knowledge of how important it was to experience the areas. Jane Elder was allowed to join the trip for Congressman Kildee, which included an overflight of some of the areas. That perspective helped to show that the Delirium area, an almost inaccessible swamp with a road and dam in the center, was a remarkable, lush area that stood out from the surrounding landscape.

Sierra Club leaders knew that other supporters were also essential to win the fight, particularly those from the UP. The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC), a terrific grassroots environmental organization founded in the mid-1970′s, became one of our most important allies. UPEC members, including Jon Saari and Bill Robinson, took time to carefully consider their position before publicly supporting the wilderness proposals. UPEC leaders, including scientists, business people and academics, contributed enormous amounts of time and energy to the fight. At a time when many in the UP endorsed Senator Mack’s anti-environmental sentiments, these local advocates were extraordinarily important in injecting facts and reason into the discussion.

As the grassroots demand grew, with help in particular from key reporters and editorial writers, the campaign continued to build. In 1985, as hearings on the House bill, HR 148, were being planned by committees, Sierra Club decided it was critical to bring supporters to the halls of Congress. In an unprecedented move for Michigan Sierra Club, about fifteen volunteer activists were flown to Washington, DC, where they testified and lobbied members of Congress about the importance of this legislation. Among them were long time Sierra Club activists John and Kathy Mitchell, as well as people who had never testified in front of a legislative body before.

One wonderful citizen lobbyist was a gentleman from the UP whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. A retiree with a hip replacement, this gentleman quietly argued with the claims that wilderness designation was an elitist effort to shut average people out of these areas and keep them just for backpackers who gave nothing to the UP. His counterpoint was simple and direct: while he was no longer able to hike into these areas the way he had in his youth, he supported making them wilderness areas so that his grandchildren and all future generations could enjoy these places as they were today. Others brought scientific information and explained that wilderness designation was designed as protecting sensitive areas as well, not just to provide primitive recreation. The testimony was quite moving, and the presence of so many Michiganders from different walks of life who had taken days out of their busy lives to come to Washington and advocate for these areas left a deep impression.

With our grassroots efforts fully engaged, the ball was now in the court of the Michigan Congressional Delegation to decide whether to move this protection or not. My next post will cover the action in Congress.

Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act, part 1

A blog by Anne Woiwode, Sierra Club Michigan Director

One of the biggest stories for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter during the past twenty-five years is the enactment of the Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act by the US Congress. Ten parcels totaling 90,000 acres of National Forest lands were permanently protected under federal wilderness law in 1987, following a ten-year battle during which this goal was the top priority of the Michigan Chapter (Big Island Lake, Delirium, Horseshoe Bay, Mackinac, McCormick, Nordhouse Dunes, Rock River Canyon, Round Island, Sturgeon River Gorge, and Sylvania).

The proof that this effort had been worthwhile was when our son Pete came back from a camping trip with college friends and was reveling in the beauty of a spectacular, wild area between Ludington and Manistee on Lake Michigan. My ears pricked up a bit, and when he asked if I’d ever heard of Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness I broke into a big grin. We can ask for nothing better than to have our children enjoy the fruits of our labors without even knowing the fight that went on to protect such a place.

View Michigan Wilderness in a larger map
Today, people are surprised that wilderness designation for less than 1% of Michigan’s 3 million acres of federal forest lands would be so controversial that it split the conservation community and was considered a political hot potato. I joined the fray after much work had been done, with prior Michigan Chapter staff people Jane Elder and Sue Pemberton and volunteers like John and Kathy Mitchell dedicating enormous energy and passion to this fight. Jane continued to lead the fight even after she moved to the Sierra Club Regional Office in Madison, WI.

In 1977 the Forest Service kicked off the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation 2 (RARE 2), a process for identifying and proposing qualifying areas for potential wilderness designation on National Forests nationwide. Federal wilderness law is some of the most poetic on the books, and captures clearly the spirit as well as the intent of protecting a part of our landscape as it is for future generations:

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In Michigan teams of Sierra Club volunteers visited all the areas under consideration during RARE 2, recording their observations on a comprehensive checklist used to rate the potential areas. The volunteers hiked and canoed into these remarkable areas, some with rare virgin forests and others with outstanding ecological and recreational value. In an era of typewriters and mimeograph machines, Jane, Sue and key volunteers were the point people on organizing the information and the activists to push for passage of wilderness protection for the 14 areas identified. The effort in Michigan echoed efforts throughout the nation.

But the politics got complicated early on. By 1980, Congressman Bob Carr and Senator Donald Riegle had sponsored Michigan wilderness bills in the US House and Senate respectively. Soon, however, Congressman Carr lost his seat, and Senator Riegle, confronted by wilderness opponents at a townhall meeting in the western Upper Peninsula, reversed his support for the legislation on the spot and spent the years to come opposing wilderness legislation. With federal wilderness legislation, the rule of thumb is that support from most of the state Congressional delegation where wilderness is proposed is needed to get passage, except in places of national significance like Alaska. We were very fortunate to have Congressman Dale Kildee take up the banner in the House and steward the Michigan Wilderness Heritage Act through passage. However Senator Riegle’s knee jerk about-face posed a major roadblock.

Back at home in Lansing, opposition to wilderness designation was particularly strong among UP legislators. One of the most vocal wilderness opponents was Senator Joe Mack, an almost cartoonish figure from the western Upper Peninsula. Mack, a Democrat whose loud sports jackets and sharp tongue were his trademark, served as chair of the key environmental committee in the Senate despite his disdain for environmental protection. Mack was convinced that only the extractive industries of logging and mining would help the UP’s economy, and famously said that backpackers came to the UP with a five dollar bill and a pair of underpants, and didn’t change either while there. While legislative approval was not needed for Congress to pass wilderness legislation, the vehement opposition from Mack and other UP officials put some pressure on Democratic members of Congress as well as Governor James Blanchard.

In addition, Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) adopted a position opposing federal wilderness designation for these parcels. The decision by the MUCC Board came at a convention where a resolution to support wilderness was on the agenda and many of the member organizations of MUCC had signed on. The story told by witnesses is that the wilderness resolution came up before the Board, and the vote counters expected it would pass despite some opposition. A break was called for by a Board member who also was a Forest Service employee working in the UP. The entirely male membership of the Board was ushered into the men’s restroom, and when they came out the resolution was voted down. Jane Elder has said that if she had a chance to replay this scene, she would not let the men’s room door stop her in the future.

The arguments given by wilderness opponents were the same as those across the country — wilderness and old growth have no value, you can’t do wildlife (read early successional game species) management, there may be valuable timber in there that should be cut, and probably most common was the complaint that you could not drive your vehicle or speed boat into the wilderness areas.

What was ignored was that as multiple use lands, the National Forests were intended to provide for the full range of uses, and that wilderness areas were in fact part of that range. Hunting and fishing are allowed in National Forest wildernesses, and many hunters enjoy the solitude and challenge. More than anything, though, in a state where the three National Forests are crisscrossed with over 10,000 miles of roads, finding areas where you can go under your own power to escape from cars and clearcuts is an experience a large number of forest users relish.

As I moved into the Sierra Club’s office as a staff person in January 1985, the wilderness fight was the Michigan Chapter’s top priority, and so became my primary job. Check my next post for details on the fight at the grassroots level and in Congress.