Bid to designate 50,000 acres in UP as ‘wilderness’ highlights tensions on public land


ONTONOGON COUNTY, MI – The Ehlco Forest Area comprises 16,000 acres of gently sloping land covered in hardwoods and conifers, which is crossed by the Big Iron River and inhabited by deer, black bears and wolves.

To the west, 25,000 acres in the Trap Hills include boreal and northern hardwood forest with cedar swamps, rugged slopes and steep cliffs with visibility up to 40 miles.

The two areas are among four large tracts of federal lands in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that preservation advocates want to see designated as a “wilderness,” a level of national protection granted to the wildest lands that forever prohibits the logging, mining and other resource extraction and restricts almost all vehicular access.

The Keep the UP Wild coalition wants the proposed designation for approximately 50,000 acres in the Ottawa National Forest. The effort launched last summer but has yet to be formally taken up by Congress, which decides which lands become “wilderness” – a place the Wilderness Act of 1964 defines as where “the land and its community of life are not hindered by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not stay.

The effort has strong support from environmental, conservation and climate groups, Democrats and eco-friendly businesses. However, he began drawing fire this summer from the lumber industry and Republican lawmakers in Lansing, who view the proposed change as not only unnecessary but potentially damaging to local economies tied to logging and other forms of outdoor recreation that would be prohibited under a wilderness designation. .

On June 30, the Republican-led Michigan Senate approved a resolution to oppose the wilderness designation drafted by Sen. 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 designation would be almost never cut trees to never cut trees,” McBroom said in a speech to the Senate. . “This is simply not acceptable to the people of the Upper Peninsula, who continue to need a resource-based economy to allow our communities to survive.”

The wilderness proposal represents a new wrinkle in the debate over Michigan’s public lands – the sheer size of which has long been a sore point for those who say local tax revenues and economic development potential suffer when land is owned by state and federal governments.

In this case, the land is already federally owned, and advocates argue that a wilderness designation would benefit local areas by attracting visitors who want to hike in remote, scenic locations. Moreover, it would enshrine protections in perpetuity.

“The biggest benefit of doing something like this is providing permanent protection to these areas,” said Tyler Barron, a policy advocate for Keep the UP Wild with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago. “If these areas are kept as just US Forest Service land, they are somehow under permanent risk of things like logging that should never be allowed in these areas.”

In addition to the Ehlco and Trap Hills areas, the coalition wants to designate 8,000 acres near Berglund as the Norwich Plains and add 2,000 acres of wilderness to the current Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness, which is one of 16 existing Federal Wilderness Areas in Michigan that together encompass 294,000 acres in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.

Although the exact boundaries and size of each area have not been finalized, the goal is to create a 40,000 m contiguous wilderness between the Trap Hills, Ehlco and Norwich areas, which would be adjacent to and immediately south of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

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

Sadly, tragedy struck the effort last year, when longtime lawyer and former ranger Douglas Welker fell and died while filming in Sturgeon River Gorge.

Welker was instrumental in helping to select areas for potential designation. The properties were specifically chosen for their wilderness characteristics and lack of major ATV or snowmobile trail networks.

Under a wilderness designation, certain activities other than timber harvesting or mining are restricted. Only walking is allowed. Mountain biking is prohibited, as are motorized vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobiles. Camping, backpacking, backpacking, hunting, fishing, rock climbing, canoeing, rafting, and kayaking are generally acceptable.

Motorized wheelchairs have special access under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Access bans are a sticking point for some, who question whether the economic benefits of wilderness tourism outweigh the dollars that could be brought in from other outdoor recreational uses. Mountain biking is a growing part of the outdoor economy in UP – especially on the Keweenaw Peninsula, where another coalition is trying to preserve 32,000 acres near Copper Harbor, which has become a cycling destination popular mountain.

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

Because ownership is already federal, a wilderness designation would not change the U.S. Forest Service’s operating costs or what local governments receive in payments in lieu of taxes, Barron said.

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Nature Association, Michigan Audubon, and Upper Peninsula Travel & Recreation Association are among the 350 listed supporters of Keep the UP Wild.

“From a tourism perspective, it’s the openness of our territory that is our biggest seller,” said Tom Nemacheck, director of travel association UP. “Look at Isle Royale. It is a wild park and it attracts people for this reason. This attracts a different type of consumer.

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

Absent from the coalition is the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, which is neutral on the proposal, as is the Michigan Townships Association (MTA). The MTA has “accessibility and public safety issues,” spokeswoman Jenn Fiedler said.

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

“Much of our economy depends on a healthy ecosystem and the people who use it, but it is also based on the need for jobs, security, hospitals and places to live, which requires a balance between development and protection,” Denham said.

“It’s always a tension.”

The Michigan Association of Counties opposes the designation because of traditional economic concerns about removing public land from tax rolls, but also because of use restrictions, said Deena Bosworth, director of government affairs.

“If you’re going to take more sections of land and restrict those activities, that further restricts outdoor tourism activity,” Bosworth said. “These smaller areas really depend on a lot of that tourism for the economic stability there.”

Bosworth was among those who testified at the Senate Committee on Natural Resources hearing on June 15, where McBroom presented his case and received comments from representatives of the forestry industry.

Henry Schienebeck of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association argued for status quo management of the land, saying it was once logged decades ago and had no wilderness features. Schienebeck echoed McBroom’s resolution, which cites a 2006 assessment by Randy Moore, now head of the Forest Service, which determined the land’s potential as wilderness was marginal.

“I have carefully examined the lands of the Outaouais for their potential as wilderness and have determined that only one roadless area on the Outaouais meets the criteria for inclusion in the National Inventory of Roadless Areas. road (the Ehlco area),” Moore wrote.

“Although the Ehlco area has been added to the inventory of roadless areas, I have found that the area does not have any features or conditions that would warrant a wilderness study recommendation. The Ehlco area has low to moderate wilderness potential Although the area is relatively remote, few people are attracted to the area and there are few recreational qualities Logged for the past 40-70 years when under private ownership , the area is not particularly scenic due to dense young forest growing on relatively flat terrain.There are opportunities for seclusion, but it is affected by noise and the operation of the nearby White Pine industrial complex.

The Trap Hills deserved a Special Interest designation because of the area’s “unique geological, scenic, recreational, and botanical features,” Moore wrote.

Keep the UP Wild needs a congressional champion to move wilderness designation forward. The hope is that U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would introduce him to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

Stabenow’s office told MLive that it “has made no commitment on this issue.”

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