Thursday, June 7, 2012

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.