April 17, 2012

Celebration Spotlights Michigan Wilderness Protected by Historic 1987 Legislation

Celebration Spotlights Michigan Wilderness Protected by Historic 1987 Legislation
Events at Nordhouse Dunes May 19; Sylvania July 15; and Horseshoe Bay Aug. 18

Media Contact: Gail Philbin, 312-493-2384, gail.philbin@sierraclub.org 

Lansing--Twenty-five years ago, a bruising 10-year battle over the wilderness designation of less than one percent of Michigan’s three million acres of national forest lands had split the state’s conservation community in two and challenged lawmakers to take a stand on an issue considered a political hot potato.

Within this contentious climate, in 1987 Congress passed the Michigan Wilderness Act, protecting 90,000 acres of spectacular old growth forests, lakes and dunes around the state that became these beloved wilderness areas:  Big Island Lake, Delirium, Horseshoe Bay, Mackinac, McCormick, Nordhouse Dunes, Rock River Canyon, Round Island, Sturgeon River Gorge, and Sylvania.

“A decade-long campaign was an incredible undertaking, but none of us involved will ever question whether or not it was worth it when we look at the splendid shores and wild heart of Michigan that are this heroic effort’s living legacy,” says Jane Elder, a passionate advocate who walked the halls of Congress and hiked wilderness trails to help win the fight.

“Even though this was, at times, a divisive and emotionally charged issue, over the years we found common ground across rural and urban areas, in both parties, and in both houses of Congress,” she adds.  “This momentum carried us to a presidential signature in 1987.”

In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Act, the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter is hosting three events this spring and summer to tell the gripping story behind this historic legislation that began unfolding in 1977 when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) started looking for areas for potential wilderness designation.

The Michigan Wilderness Celebration series kicks off Saturday, May 19, from 11 am to Noon with a program celebrating Nordhouse Dunes. The event will feature reminiscences by key players in the political drama who fought to protect these wilderness areas and be followed by guided and individual hikes of Nordhouse Dunes. The program begins at the Lake Michigan Recreation Area adjacent to Nordhouse Dunes between Ludington and Manistee on the Lake Michigan coast (at the end of W. Forest Trail Road).

Speakers at Nordhouse Dunes will include Chapter Director Anne Woiwode, who was a young environmentalist at the time, US Forest Service staff, and local activists who fought for the designation.

The Michigan Wilderness Act has its roots in the USFS’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation 2 (RARE 2), a national process it started in 1977 to identify and propose qualifying areas in national forests for potential wilderness designation. In Michigan, teams of Sierra Club volunteers got involved and visited all areas under consideration, recording their observations on a comprehensive checklist used to rate them.

“In an era of typewriters and the exotic new technology of photocopiers, Jane and dozens of volunteers were the point people on organizing the information and the activists to push for passage of the areas identified,” says Woiwode. “But politics got complicated early on, and it became an enormous battle.”

By 1980, Congressman Bob Carr and Senator Donald Riegle had sponsored Michigan wilderness bills in the U.S. House and Senate respectively, but Representative Carr lost his seat eventually after redistricting, and Senator Riegle reversed his support for some areas under pressure from wilderness opponents, delaying enactment for another Congress. Fortunately, Congressman Dale Kildee took up the banner in the House and stewarded it through to passage, along with Senator Carl Levin’s able help and Reigle’s renewed support in the Senate.

“The beauty of the wilderness law is that nothing man had done has changed the lands; they are managed much as they came from the hand of God,” said Kildee.  “I know not everyone is going to visit a wilderness area, but it is nice to know in today’s high-tech society, there will always be areas where people can ski, snowshoe or paddle a canoe in an absolutely motorless area.

“This is all possible because 25 years ago we had the foresight and wisdom to understand that some parts of a forest are too precious to develop.”

In Michigan, opposition to the bill was strong among UP legislators, and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs refused to support the wilderness designation. The arguments given back then sound familiar today:  wilderness and old growth have no value; you can’t manage wildlife (i.e. cut timber for deer or grouse habitat) in protected areas; we need to harvest valuable timber, and we have a right to use our motorized vehicles on public land.

“These are common themes of opposition today,” says Woiwode.  “It demonstrates the battle to protect Michigan’s natural heritage will never be over—we have to remain vigilant.”

The Michigan Wilderness Celebration continues on July 15 with a presentation and picnic at Sylvania Wilderness and on Aug. 18 with a presentation and hike at Horseshoe Bay Wilderness.

For details on any of these events, visit www.michigan.sierraclub.org or email gail.philbin@sierraclub.org or call 517-484-2372.

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NOTE: This event begins at the Lake Michigan Recreation Area adjacent to Nordhouse Dunes between Ludington and Manistee on the Lake Michigan coast. Directions below. If you drive, you'll need to purchase a pass for your vehicle at the Recreation Area if you don't have an annual pass already. Details are at the Huron Manistee National Forest website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/hmnf/passes-permits/recreation.

Directions to Nordhouse Dunes event:
West Forest Trail Road enters the wilderness area from U.S. 31. Follow W. Forest Trail Road (paved) west about eight miles from U.S. 31 to the group campsite and parking lot on Porter Creek Road. There are signs. The two "loops" at the end of Porter Creek Road are the parking area with access to the dunes and beach as well as the group campsite. The observation tower is also near the parking lot. Map of Lake Michigan Recreation Area campgrounds:  http://binged.it/HAqT32 

BYOC:  Bring your own chair if you’d like to sit during the program and pack a lunch and swimsuit for the beach afterwards or hiking gear to explore the beauty of Nordhouse Dunes.