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Environment Michigan pushes to revive Michigan’s waning wilderness program

Algonac designation is state’s first since 1988
Aggressive lobbying and public education by MEC member group Environment Michigan helped convince Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to create the state’s first wilderness designation in 20 years, permanently protecting part of Algonac State Park.

The 1,244-acre parcel of pre-settlement prairie and savanna within Algonac State Park near the St. Clair River became Michigan’s first state-designated wilderness area since 1988 when the legislature recently approved a recommendation from the Department of Natural Resources. The last land to receive such protection was 291 acres of the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, 20 years ago.

The Algonac land was not in imminent peril from encroachment, but backers of the wilderness (or natural area) designation said the extra protection will help keep it pristine for generations.

More importantly, according to Danielle Korpalski of Environment Michigan, the DNR’s willingness to recommend wilderness protection for state-owned land is a signal that the state’s Wilderness and Natural Areas Program may at last be revitalized.

“It’s only 1,244 acres, but it’s the first 1,244 acres in 20 years,” Korpalski said.

DNR officials hesitated to describe the recommendation, made by Director Rebecca Humphries, as a signal the wilderness program launched in 1972 was returning to a high level of activity.

Humphries “would like to revitalize the natural areas program,” said DNR spokeswoman Mary Detloff. There is a significant backlog of potential properties that could be considered for inclusion, she said. “But we don’t have any dedicated funding source to pay for the research” needed to qualify them for wilderness status, Detloff said.

Only 20 sites were designated under the original wilderness area statute, and none since it was rewritten in 1994. The largest by far, at more than 40,000 acres, is in Porcupine Mountains State Park in the western Upper Peninsula. In all, the DNR considers 130,000 acres to be natural areas under some form of enhanced protection from development or exploitation.

Korpalski’s group is pushing for wilderness designation for 18 other parcels totaling 45,669 acres (see table). Among those are more than 17,000 acres around Tahquamenon Falls in the eastern Upper Peninsula and 7,000 acres at Wilderness State Park in the northwest Lower Peninsula. The group talked to more than 50,000 Michiganders and delivered over 10,000 public comments to the governor, asking for dedication of these pending lands.

“It is the governor’s and the DNR’s responsibility to step up and protect these valued lands that bring in over $12 billion annually in tourism dollars,” said Korpalski.

More good news was received in May, when the Natural Resources Commission proposed that Carney Fen Natural Area in the Upper Peninsula receive similar wilderness designation.

In general, officially designated wilderness areas are off limits to motorized and mechanized vehicles (including bikes), mining, lumbering and all forms of commercial activity. Even hiking trail maintenance is kept to a minimum.

Supporters say the supply of true natural areas is tiny and shrinking, and that efforts should be made to preserve as much as possible of what is left.

Katrina Cooper, a frequent visitor to Algonac State Park, told Environment Michigan she’s happy to hear the news. “I love the atmosphere here,” she says, “and am thrilled to hear that it is permanently protected.”
-Brad Garmon, Michigan Environmental Council
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