Feds threaten fishing, hunting at Bear Dunes

Published August 1, 2002

A controversial proposal to create a federal wilderness in a portion of Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has local residents, region-wide anglers, hunters, hikers, and other outdoor folks concerned and angry. The National Park Service is proposing to close popular access roads, end hunting on North Manitou Island, and discontinue the annual stocking of Coho salmon on the Platte River.

Lakeshore or wilderness?

Locals responded to the proposal by claiming “We have a lakeshore here, not a wilderness. We need more roads going to the beach.”

But that’s not going to happen if the recently released park Draft Management Plan and proposal remain as written. Among other things, it calls for acquiring and closing 14 miles of county-owned road in Benzie County and nine miles in Leelanau County. Park staff began long-term planning for the park a year ago. It recently released four alternative plans, including its preferred alternative.

The most contentious aspect is the proposal to establish 7,100 acres of wilderness in the southern part of the park around the Platte River, ending the annual stocking of Coho salmon on the Platte River.

“They have a national plan to close down the park and close portions of it to public use. They haven’t asked us what we want. We heavily oppose their preferred alternative,” says Ed McIntosh, president of the Benzie Fishery Coalition, a group of 150 area businesses and individuals. “Our government has decided to turn our park—the park we gave them—into a wilderness. In some places they want a primitive wilderness. And in some places, a pristine wilderness. That means no people.”

Park officials say citizens and angling groups and state leaders have “overreacted” to the draft management plan. Three open houses were held by the Park Service in the area in July to collect comments on the draft management plan.

Closing a fishery

Michigan DNR’s Platte River Hatchery traditionally raises and stocks coho for the four Lake Michigan states, as well as supplying coho for other Midwest state DNR agencies. The elimination of this stocking and raising program would be a major economic and recreational blow to the region.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs Executive Director Sam Washington says, “The DNR just spent millions to rebuild our hatchery system. The Platte River attracts thousands of salmon and trout lovers every year. Whether or not the Coho is an exotic is irrelevant—it’s an important species to our citizens and vital to the economy of Benzie County” and the Lake Michigan community.

Kelley Smith, chief of fisheries for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said he doesn’t have all the facts yet, but would oppose ending the river stocking program. “It is the state’s broodstock river for the entire coho salmon program. It also provides coho eggs to other Great Lakes states.”

“The devil will be in the details,” said Smith, who was perturbed that he had not been notified of the proposal by the national lakeshore staff. Mike Duwe, environmental specialist for the National Lakeshore, conceded the oversight had taken place and that appropriate apologies had been made. Official responsibility for fisheries decisions falls to the DNR.

“For all intents and purposes, the Platte River is our coho program,” Smith said. “It’s where we collect the eggs and we don’t maintain a broodstock anywhere else in the state.” The Platte River hatchery is where the coho are raised. Many are stocked in the river. They swim down to Lake Michigan and live out most their lives. Then they return to their upstream home waters to spawn before they die. Eggs for the program are taken from the returning salmon.

Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission also shared its displeasure with the Park Service and challenged the Service’s jurisdiction in managing the state’s resources. At its July 12 regular monthly meeting, the Commission passed a resolution opposing the U.S. Park Service’s proposed general management plan for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The planning process

The Commission noted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the state Natural Resource Commission are the primary responsible agencies for managing fish, wildlife, and other resources in the state. The Commission also noted neither agency was consulted in the formulation of the Park Service’s proposed management plan. The NRC resolution expresses its strong concerns about the plan’s potential impact on hunting, fishing, wildlife, and other outdoor recreation.

Duwe said the two areas of major contention in the plan—roads and coho—are areas where the Park Service has no control. Policies regarding fishing require DNR approval, and policies concerning roads require county road commission approval. Closing roads will likely require buying them.

This preliminary plan is the second step of four. It will be followed by a draft plan and environmental impact statement this winter. A final plan will follow in the fall of 2003. Each will be available for the public to review on the Park Service’ Web site or via U.S. mail.

The next phase of the plan due this winter will identify all the associated environmental and economic impacts of the proposal. Public input is important to the process. Copies of the plan are available by calling 231/326-3134 or by writing to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, 9922 Front Street, Empire, MI 49630-9417.

Comments on the plan can be submitted electronically to [email protected].

Dan Thomas is president of the Elmhurst, Illinois-based Great Lakes Sport Fishing Council, http://www.great-lakes.org. His email address is [email protected].