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.