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.