Attempt to allocate UP’s 50,000 acres as “wild” highlights tension over public lands

ONTONAGON COUNTY, MI – The Ehlco Forest features 16,000 acres of gently sloping land covered in hardwood and coniferous trees, bisected by the Big Iron River and inhabited by deer, black bears and wolves.

To the west, 25,000 acres in Trap Hills feature a northern and northern hardwood forest with cedar swamps, rugged cliffs, and clear cliffs that boast a 40-mile view.

Both areas are among four large parcels of federal land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that conservationists want to consider “wild,” a level of national protection afforded to the wildest lands that forever prohibits logging, mining, and other resource extraction and restricts access to nearly all vehicles.

The Keep the UP Wild Coalition wants the proposed designation of approximately 50,000 acres in the Ottawa National Forest. The effort was launched last summer but has not been formally taken up by Congress, which decides which lands become “wild” – a place defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act as “man does not constrain the land and the community of life therein, where man himself is a visitor who does not stay.” “.

This effort has significant support from the environmental, conservation and climate groups, Democrats, and green businesses. However, it is starting to spark fires this summer from the timber industry and Republican lawmakers in Lansing, who see the proposed change as not only unnecessary but potentially harmful to local economies associated with logging and other forms of outdoor recreation that may be prohibited. Under the wild classification. .

On June 30, the Republican-led Michigan Senate approved a resolution opposing the naming of the wilderness written by Senator Ed McBroom, R. Vulcan.

“When I met with these groups to discuss this issue, they made it clear that the only significant difference that would occur in their minds in this appointment was to go from no logging to logging at all,” McBroom said in Senate floor notes. . “This is unacceptable to the people of the Upper Peninsula, who still need resource-based economies in order to allow our communities to survive.”

The wildlife proposal represents a new wrinkle in the Michigan public lands debate — large tracts of it have long been a critical point for those who say local tax revenue and economic development potential suffer when the land is owned by the state and federal governments.

In this case, the land is already federally owned, and proponents argue that the designation of the wilderness will benefit local areas by attracting visitors who want to hike in the scenic hinterland. Furthermore, it would enshrine protection forever.

“The biggest benefit to doing something like this is to provide permanent protection for these areas,” said Tyler Barron, an advocate for Keep the UP Wild policy with the Chicago-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “If these areas are just held as US Forest Service land, they’re kind of in constant danger of things like logging that shouldn’t be allowed in these areas.”

In addition to the Ehlco and Trap Hills areas, the alliance wants to allocate 8,000 acres near Berglund called Norwich Plains and add 2,000 acres of wilderness to the existing Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, which is one of Michigan’s 16 federal wilderness areas that, together, cover 294,000 acres in Both the upper and lower peninsulas.

Although the exact boundaries and area of ​​each area have not been finalized, the goal is to create 40,000 contiguous wildernesses between the Trap Hills, Ehlco and Norwich areas, which will be contiguous and directly south of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

The effort began after 2019 legislation named for the late Congressman John Dingell designated more than 1.3 million new wilderness acres across the country, and expanded the system of national parks and protected lands near Yellowstone from mining. Wildlife advocates in UP saw bipartisan support for the bill received in Congress and began a new push.

Unfortunately, tragedy befell the efforts of last year, when old attorney and former ranger Douglas Welker fell and died during a photo session in Sturgeon River Gorge.

Welker was instrumental in helping identify areas for potential naming. The properties were chosen specifically for the characteristics of wildlife and the lack of ATV trail networks or prime snowmobiles.

Under the wilderness classification, certain activities beyond timber harvesting or mineral extraction are restricted. Only travel on foot is allowed. Mountain biking is prohibited, as are any motorized vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobiles. It’s generally okay for camping, hiking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, climbing, kayaking, and kayaking.

Motorized wheelchairs are granted special access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Banning access is a sticking point for some, who question whether the economic benefits of wildlife-based tourism outweigh the dollars that other outdoor recreational uses can bring. Mountain biking is a growing part of UP’s outdoor economy—particularly on the Keweenaw Peninsula, where various alliances are trying to conserve 32,000 acres near Copper Harbor, which has become a popular mountain biking destination.

The Ehlco area includes a 20-mile mountain bike trail, which presumably can no longer be used under the wilderness designation, although Barron said it could be excluded from the wilderness depending on how the final boundaries are drawn.

Because the property is already federal, Barron said, designating the wilderness will not change the costs of operating the US Forest Service or what local governments receive in payments in lieu of taxes.

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Alliance, the Michigan Environmental Council, the Michigan Society for Nature, the Michigan Audubon, and the Upper Peninsula Travel and Leisure Association are among the 350 supporters listed in Keep the UP Wild.

“From a tourism standpoint, the openness of our land is our number one seller,” said Tom Nemachik, director of UP’s Travel Consortium. “Look at the Isle Royale. It is a wild park and it attracts people for that reason. It attracts a different kind of consumer.”

Mountain bikers already have plenty of “high-quality designated trails being maintained,” Nemacheck said. “At this point, there are no conflicts that we see as there is not enough for everyone to do what they want.”

Missing from the coalition is the Upper Peninsula Land Conservation Authority, which is neutral on the proposal, as is the Michigan Suburban Association (MTA). spokeswoman Jane Fiedler said the MTA had “access and public safety concerns.”

Andrea Denham, director of land conservation, said the organization was still studying the proposal and wanted to see where local governments and indigenous tribes fell.

“So much of our economy depends on having a healthy ecosystem and on the people who use it, but it also depends on the need for jobs, safety, hospitals and living spaces and this requires a balance between development and protection,” Denham said.

“It’s always stressful.”

Dina Bosworth, director of government affairs, said the Michigan League of Districts opposes the classification due to traditional economic concerns about removing public land from tax rolls, but also because of use restrictions.

“If you’re going to take more parts of the land and restrict these activities, that restricts more outbound tourism activity,” Bosworth said. “These smaller areas are really dependent on a lot of that tourism to bring economic stability there.”

Bosworth was among those who gave testimony during the Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on June 15, where McBroom put forward his argument and took comments from representatives of the logging industry.

Henry Schenebeck of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association has argued for managing the land’s status quo, saying it was previously registered decades ago and lacks wildlife characteristics. Schienebeck echoed McBroom’s decision, who cites a 2006 assessment by Randy Moore, now head of the Forest Service, who determined that the land potential as great was marginal.

Moore wrote, “I have carefully examined land throughout Ottawa for its significant potential and determined that one Roadless District in Ottawa meets the criteria for inclusion in the National Inventory of Roadless Areas (Ehlco District)”.

“While the Ehlco area has been added to the inventory of roadless areas, I have found that the area does not have features or conditions that warrant a recommendation for studying the wilderness. The Ehlco area has low to medium wilderness potential. Although the area is relatively remote, few people are attracted to To the area and there are few recreation qualities.Recorded over the past forty to seventy years when it was under private ownership, the area is not particularly scenic due to young dense forests growing on relatively flat terrain.There are opportunities for isolation, but it is affected by noise and running The nearby White Pine Industrial Complex.”

Moore wrote that Trapp Hills ensured identification of special interests due to “the unique geological, landscape, recreational, and botanical features of the area.”

Keep the Wild needs a hero from Congress to promote the naming of wildlife. The hope is that U.S. Senator Debbie Stabeno, Democrat of Michigan, will submit it to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Stabenow’s office only told MLive that it had “made no commitments on this matter.”

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