Breaking Logjam on Natural Rivers Hearings Scheduled for Pine and Upper Manistee Rivers Protection

Breaking Logjam on Natural Rivers Hearings Scheduled for Pine and Upper Manistee Rivers Protection

By: Andy Guy, Michigan Land Use Institute

After almost two years of sharp prodding from conservation groups, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will sponsor public hearings this spring on a citizen-based plan to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee Rivers.

Approval of the Natural Rivers plan for the Pine and Manistee, which northern Michigan’s conservationists, ecologists, state scientists, and local leaders have worked on for more than six years,would encourage local governments to protect the two rivers from the steady march of new development. Both of these Blue Ribbon trout streams flow across the northern Lower Peninsula into Lake Michigan.

For the plan’s supporters, the public hearings present a long-awaited opportunity to highlight the risks confronting the Pine-Upper Manistee river system and tout the lasting benefits of Natural Rivers protection. The hearings could also set the stage for a statewide revival of the Michigan Natural Rivers Act.

For opponents, the hearings offer a final chance to sink the safeguards proposed for the two still largely untouched streams. Private property rights activists have sought to kill both this specific plan and the state law, saying it systematically violates private property rights and usurps local control.

But water resource experts agree that the Natural Rivers Act is a fundamental strategy for safeguarding waterways and the Great Lakes that they replenish. The law was established in 1970 to keep riverbanks stable with native vegetation and protect places for birds, insects, fish, and other creatures.

The Natural Rivers Act works by enabling local citizens and state officials to write a conservation plan together that includes uniform zoning rules throughout a river corridor.The primary goals of the rules are maintaining shoreline trees and plants, and positioning new septic tanks and buildings back from the river’s edge — two basic strategies for slowing erosion and limiting pollution.

Since the law was enacted 30 years ago it has kept 14 of Michigan’s most beautiful streams — like the Rogue River flowing through the heart of metropolitan Grand Rapids — clean, quiet, and full of fish. Despite this record of accomplishment, the Natural Rivers Act has not been used since 1988 to protect additional rivers from the negative consequences of sprawling development.

Opponents assert that the draft plan for the Pine-Upper Manistee river system threatens to excessively limit individuals’ freedom to construct new homes, businesses, and shoreline structures such as docks and gazebos. They also contend that implementation of Natural Rivers development standards would improperly shift the powers of local governments to the state DNR.

Supporters of the new protections disagree. They stress that the plan is, in fact, locally based and would enable state and local authorities to maintain water quality and natural habitats by facilitating coordinated community planning and zoning. State records show that 60 percent of the 1,698 miles of Michigan waterways already designated as Natural Rivers systems are actively managed by local, not state, ordinances.

Blessed with more than 400 miles of popular fishing and canoeing waters, the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers are tremendous public assets. Hearings on the plan to encourage their protection for future generations will be held across the State this spring.


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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.