What four new wilderness areas would mean for the U.P.

By: - July 27, 2021 5:35 am

Hiking the Norwich Plains | Keep the U.P. Wild photo

Updated, 10:06 p.m., 7/27/21

“There are better views than this. This isn’t the most scenic,” former wilderness ranger Doug Welker tells me, unimpressed, as we peer down hundreds of feet onto a breathtaking panorama of dense green forest, uninterrupted and wild up to the horizon.

Welker, who still regularly hikes the area since leaving his post with the Ottawa National Forest in the mid-1990s, knows this unique slice of Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula well and is eager to share obscure facts on our late July trek.

The pristinely rugged Trap Hills area of the forest was born from ancient geologic events spanning from molten lava to giant glaciers. Southeast of the Porcupine Mountains and 25 miles from Ontonagon, it is home to Michigan’s highest sheer cliff at 350 feet high, as well as a tranquil waterfall and a wide range of rare and endangered species.

It is also one of four expanses of U.P. land that a growing state coalition is fighting to enshrine with a wilderness designation, the highest-possible level of federal protection.

Four proposed wilderness areas in the western U.P. | Laina G. Stebbins graphic

The Trap Hills, Ehlco Area, Norwich Plains and a 2,000-acre addition to the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness area, all located within the bounds of the Ottawa National Forest in the western U.P., would form a combined 51,000 new acres of designated wilderness if approved by Congress.

The “Keep the U.P. Wild” initiative to preserve the areas with a wilderness designation has so far accumulated 75 member organizations and businesses since spring 2019, with more signing on each week.

Horst Schmidt, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, said preserving the four areas under the Wilderness Act of 1964 is crucial in order to protect them from energy interests that may pollute the waters, cut down trees and otherwise damage the large, wild expanses of nature.

“The wilderness designation is important because it prevents mining and logging, and what you’re trying to do is leave areas as undisturbed as possible,” Schmidt said. “It allows people to see what the natural world was like without our intervention.”

He cited threats from projects like the White Pine mining project, which would sit at the south edge of the Porcupine Mountains and just north of the Ottawa National Forest. The Highland Copper Co. recently purchased the property, which is home to the former White Pine Mine (Michigan’s last major copper mine) in order to resume mining at an adjacent site.

This was once a booming industry in the U.P., with the state’s so-called “Copper Country” once leading the nation in copper production for 42 years straight in the mid-1800s. There are now modern attempts to bring some of that industry back, but not without fierce opposition from environmentalists.

“We’ve been fighting mining up here for a number of years now,” Schmidt said. “Every time that happens, we have to worry about … air pollution and water pollution, then also you have the tailings that have to be disposed of. So you have all these hazards that basically have the ability to go into the environment surrounding it.”

With the highest level of federal protection, Schmidt says the mine project, wind turbine farms and other commercial interests would not be able to encroach on the wilderness and remove anything of value to them.

“It’s like giving somebody a cob of corn, and they give you the husk back. That’s what we get,” Schmidt said.

16 federal wilderness areas in Michigan

There are currently 16 federally designated wilderness areas in Michigan, with the majority located in the Upper Peninsula.

The Huron Islands, Michigan Islands and Seney National Wildlife Refuge were the state’s first three designees in 1970. Isle Royale was designated next in 1976, followed by 10 more in 1987: Big Island Lake, Delirium Wilderness, Horseshoe Bay, Mackinac Wilderness, McCormick Wilderness, Nordhouse Dunes, Rock River Canyon, Round Island, Sturgeon River Gorge and Sylvania Wilderness.

No new wilderness areas were declared until 2009, when Beaver Basin within the U.P.’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore received the designation. The Sleeping Bear Dunes became the most recent wilderness designee in March 2014.

“Designation helps improve our ability to draw tourists. … Sleeping Bear Dunes was designated as a wilderness area, [and] the volume of visitors went up significantly,” Schmidt said.

The Keep the U.P. Wild coalition notes that the wilderness areas that exist across the country bring in $85 per acre in annual benefits to the American public. There are also 171,000 Michigan jobs created each year from hunting and fishing throughout the state and a $11.2 billion annual revenue boost from those activities.*

The four areas combined would create two contiguous wilderness areas of more than 40,000 acres in Ontonagon County and nearly 19,000 acres in Houghton County.

The Trap Hills is the largest, at about 25,000 acres of nearly undisturbed wild nature, followed by the 16,000-acre Ehlco Area to the northwest. The Norwich Plains to the east spans about 8,000 acres and is still recovering from 1980s timber activity and road construction.

The 16,744-acre Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness in the northeast of the Ottawa National Forest has been under wilderness designation since 1987, but 2,000 acres of land on the area’s southwest border was not originally considered and is without the same protection.

Welk said the Sturgeon River Gorge addition will be the likeliest bet to be accepted as a wilderness area, followed by the Ehlco Area and Trap Hills.

There are “miles you could walk in a straight line without encountering anything besides ancient logging road” in Ehlco, Welk said.

Nationally, there are 803 designated wilderness areas that protect more than 111.3 million acres of federal land. Those areas are located in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

Four federal land management agencies manage wilderness areas in the United States: The U.S. National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some areas are managed by multiple agencies.

The USFS oversees the most locations, whereas the NPS oversees the most acres of wilderness.

These agencies are also responsible for submitting proposals for new wilderness areas to Congress. If an area of federal land fits the necessary criteria, Congress reviews the case and decides which areas and how much acreage will become designated, if any.

Ten out of Michigan’s 16 protected wilderness areas are managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

To be added to the country’s Wilderness Preservation System, areas must be under federal ownership and management, consist of at least 5,000 acres of land, show only “substantially unnoticeable” human influence, have opportunities for solitude and recreation and possess “ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Once designated, human activities would be limited to non-motorized recreation and scientific research. In the four proposed U.P. areas specifically, that would mean visitors can no longer drive four-wheelers through the forests like they do now.

The boost in federal protection would also mean rare and endangered species like the peregrine falcon, Eastern timber wolf, fairy bells and Braun’s holly fern have a better chance for preservation.

The coalition is currently working on securing the support of U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.), and then will turn to state lawmakers representing the regions. Stabenow, Peters and the six state lawmakers representing the U.P. did not respond to requests for comment.

Sean Hammond, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) which is a member of the coalition, said Monday that all Michiganders above and below the Mackinac Bridge have reason to care about preserving the state’s most remote natural areas in the U.P.

“The preservation of wild spaces is a key part of, one, Michigan’s tourism and conservation heritage, and two, it’s a huge part of what needs to happen to combat climate change,” Hammond said. “We need to dedicate more public lands to be green space, and protecting those that we have is key.

“We have these pristine lands, and by keeping them in that state, they can be tourism [and] economic draws from not just across the state, but across the country and across the world,” he added.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.