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 several events 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 series kicked off at Nordhouse Dunes on May 19th.
The Michigan Wilderness Act Celebration continues at Sylvania Wilderness on Sunday, July 15, from Noon-2 pm CST (local time). The first half of the event will take place at the Ottawa National Forest Visitors Center, US Hwy. 2 and Hwy. 45, Watersmeet, and will feature reminiscences by key players in the political drama who fought to protect these wilderness areas. This presentation will be followed at 1 pm by a catered picnic and guided hikes at the Day Use Building at the north end of Clark Lake next to Sylvania Wilderness.
RSVP by July 12 is required to attend the picnic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 517-484-2372, ext. 10.
Speakers at Sylvania will include Chapter Director Anne Woiwode, who was a young environmentalist at the time; Dave Dempsey, former staffer for Cong. Bob Carr, who Introduced the legislation, and former environmental advisor to Gov. Blanchard; and activists who fought for the designation including Jane Elder, the Chapter’s first staff person back in the 1980s. Waltraud Brinkmann of the Friends of Sylvania; William Malmsten, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition; and Norman Nass, district ranger for the US Forest Service, will also participate in the program.
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 in 1982, 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.
“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 concludes on Aug. 18 with a presentation and hike at Horseshoe Bay Wilderness.
Getting to the Ottawa National Forest Visitors Center is straightforward, because it’s at the intersection of two main roads—US Hwys 2 and 45. From there, to get to the Day Use Building for the picnic, go west on Hwy 2 about 4 miles to Thousand Island Lake Rd (County Rd. 535). Turn left onto Thousand Island Lake Rd. and travel south about 3 miles until you come to the Sylvania Wilderness entrance station.
Note: If you’re using GPS or MapQuest, please be aware they might not afford accurate directions in a wilderness area. Here is a link to a map of the Sylvania Wilderness entrance (red diamond) and Day Use Building (red triangle): http://www.sylvaniawildernesscabins.com/page04.html#anchor_42
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