Michigan’s Grass Roots Wetland Advocates Winning on Beach Dooming Debate

Michigan’s Grass Roots Wetland Advocates Winning on Beach Dooming Debate

Michigan’s coastal wetland destroyers are reeling. Thanks to the efforts of wetland advocates across the state of Michigan, sound science has finally been brought to the debate over the merits of allowing shoreline property owners to destroy emergent coastal wetlands. In May, the Michigan Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee met to discuss the effects of a 2003 amendment to Michigan’s wetland protection law that allows for coastal wetland destruction, phrased as “beach grooming and maintenance.” Grassroots wetland advocates showed up in full force, along with several prominent wetland researchers, and the evidence of coastal wetland integrity to the health of the Great Lakes seemed to make a profound impact on the committee.

Background on Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands
Great Lakes water levels have been low in recent years as part of annual fluctuations that occur in periods of 30 and 150 years. The low water levels have exposed Great Lakes bottomland that, depending on the substrate, provides fertile ground for emerging Great Lakes coastal wetlands.

These wetlands are some of the most ecologically valuable areas in the Great Lakes. They provide habitat for songbirds, amphibians, mammals, and more than 48 fish species and two dozen waterfowl species that fuel a multi-million-dollar recreation industry. They protect water quality by absorbing excess nutrients that would otherwise cause unwanted growth of algae. They reduce erosion and sediment suspension by absorbing wave action and binding soils along the shoreline. When the water levels rise after a few years, the vegetated bottomlands are again flooded, providing excellent habitat for fish and waterfowl while continuing to reduce erosion caused by waves. The dynamic nature of Great Lakes coastal wetlands and their reliance on fluctuating water cycles is well documented. Because of their dynamic nature and the overall global rarity of freshwater coastal systems,Great Lakes coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for rare organisms and communities found only along the Great Lakes shore.

Wetland Destroyers Unite
With the shortsighted, self-interested opinion that they were losing their beaches to the growth of “weeds,” a special interest group formed in Michigan, calling itself Save Our Shoreline (SOS). By spreading much misinformation (e.g., coastal wetlands harbor hepatitis), the group successfully lobbied lawmakers in 2003 to weaken Michigan’s wetland protection laws. The amendment allows for leveling of sand, mechanical grooming (plowing the top four inches of sand), mowing vegetation, and path construction in the exposed bottomlands. In addition, the state has streamlined the permit process for removing vegetation in specified pilot areas.

Dissatisfied with the amendments that were passed, the wetland destroyers have continued their assault on several fronts: filing an amicus brief challenging the public trust doctrine in a Court of Appeals case, pressuring federal and state lawmakers to further open up wetland protection laws, and unsuccessfully attempting to have the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners apply for a non-existent “general permit” on behalf of the county’s 1,100 shoreline residents.

Senate Committee Hears the Rest of the Story
When the Michigan Wetland Action Coalition (MWAC), a project of Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, put out the word that a Senate hearing was scheduled to discuss the beach-dooming amendments, wetland advocates responded en masse.MWAC was able to arrange for several prominent wetland researchers, policy experts, and concerned citizens to give testimony at the hearing. After the hearing, some Senators expressed concern about what they heard. While SOS members asked the Committee to remove the permit application requirement and a sunset provision, Committee Chair Patricia Birkholz told a reporter after the hearing that she likely would not revisit the issue until a study of ecological impacts is completed.

Battles Continue in the House
Since the Senate hearing, a bill has been introduced to the Michigan House that would allow commercial shoreline property owners in Grand Traverse Bay and Saginaw Bay to destroy wetland vegetation on their entire length of shoreline. Michigan’s wetland advocates will be vigilant in working against this destructive bill. The integrity of coastal wetlands and the health of the Great Lakes are simply too important. If you would like to stay up to date on this and other wetland issues, please email chrisgrubb@watershedcouncil.org to receive the bi-weekly MWAC email newsletter.



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