Building Coalition on Spirit Mountain

Building Coalition on Spirit Mountain

Written with Input from Cathy Podeszwa and Tim Larson of the Duluth Audubon Society, Nancy Nelson of the Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance, and Jennifer Tahtinen of EAGLE

The Spirit Mountain northern hardwood forest is located on the uplands of the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area on the western edge of Duluth, Minnesota, overlooking western Lake Superior and the mouth of the St. Louis River. Although the forest has remained relatively undisturbed over the years, it is now at the heart of an intense struggle between those wishing to preserve it, and those seeking to turn it into a golf course and hotel. The history of this struggle is complicated, and while the issue has not yet been resolved it is an incredible story of what is possible with the building of a coalition of local grassroots conservation groups and citizens.

There has been an outpouring of protest from citizens of Duluth and people across the Great Lakes region from the time the golf course/hotel project was proposed in 1996. The support gained from joining forces has provided much of the momentum necessary to maintain the struggle. The arguments to protect Spirit Mountain have effectively come in three waves: first, the site has extremely high ecological value; second, the proposed development is in conflict with federal regulations; and third, the site is sacred in Native American culture.

Ecological Value

The proposed development site contains old growth hardwoods, many small wetlands, and a branch of a designated urban trout stream, Stewart Creek. It is feared that if developers are allowed to move forward much of the forest will be destroyed and wetlands will be significantly altered. There is also concern about the potential for increased runoff from the site, which could carry sediment and chemicals from the golf course directly into Stewart Creek, seriously degrading (and quite possibly destroying) this prime trout habitat.

Trying to get the City of Duluth and the Spirit Mountain Authority to recognize the ecological value of Spirit Mountain has been an uphill struggle. Environmentalists feel that proponents of the development have repeatedly tried to overlook applicable environmental regulations. Citizens were forced to submit a petition to have an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) completed, even though it was clear from the state environmental review rules that the EAW was mandatory. When the EAW was finally prepared, despite the testimony of Department of Natural Resource staff, professional geologists, hydrologists, and ecologists attesting to the significant environmental impacts on water and forest resources that development would have, the governmental unit decided not to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which would have specifically examined the environmental impact of the project and what would be lost.

In response to this decision, the Gitche Gumee Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Inc., the W.J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, Inc., the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and Nancy Nelson and Terry Brown (representing the West Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance) filed a lawsuit challenging that the decision that no EIS was needed was arbitrary and capricious. Many other groups, although not actual parties to the lawsuit, provided support and funding. Unfortunately, the court decided not to overturn the decision not to conduct an EIS. Although this was a huge disappointment, the lawsuit did help to increase the public awareness and interest in the issues.

Without an EIS, concerned citizens gathered, in an effort to both document and demonstrate the environmental impact of the project themselves. Groups addressed the press and the City Council on issues in their areas of expertise. For example, the Duluth Audubon Society spoke about impacts to birds, the Izaak Walton League spoke about impacts to trout streams, and the Sierra Club spoke about impacts to the forest.

Groups also conducted environmental surveys of the area. Both the Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education (EAGLE) and the Duluth Audubon Society applied to GLAHNF and received grants to assist them in conducting ecological surveys. EAGLE conducted a rare plant survey and noted several rare plant species on the site, and Duluth Audubon conducted a breeding bird census on the site, observing a total of 46 bird species, 35 of which were thought to be nesting within the count area.

Federal Regulations

One of the strongest legal arguments against the destruction of the forest comes from an overlooked clause in a decades-old grant agreement. Activists, with the help of several City Council members sympathetic to the struggle, discovered and made public the fact that the City of Duluth had received money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LAWCON) in the 1970’s to construct the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area under the condition that the land be maintained for public outdoor recreational use forever. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has said that a privately owned hotel in the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area would violate LAWCON rules.

Exposing the LAWCON conflict was a crucial step in the effort to save Spirit Mountain and is a testament to the commitment by many in the environmental community to look at every aspect of the issue in order to find any regulatory violations. The issues involving the LAWCON have become one of the main legal obstacles for the developers, as the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed not to process the developers’ 404 permit application until the LAWCON issues are resolved. The Corps of Engineers wetland alteration permit demands review under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requiring, among other things, a review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 includes investigation into the area’s historical, cultural, and spiritual significance to Native Americans.

Spiritual Significance

The third major piece in the argument to protect the forest is its spiritual significance to the Anishinabe people. Spirit Mountain is one of seven sacred sites along the migration route of the ancestral Anishinabe to the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. As the struggle has continued, more and more Anishinabe have attended public meetings to voice their opposition to the destruction of Spirit Mountain and to bring attention to the mountain as a sacred site. In the late 1990’s CJ Bird and Warner Wirta, Native American activists, became involved, helping to organize tribal opposition to the proposed development. Tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario have now passed resolutions affirming the sacred site as a place for ceremonies and the site of ancestral burial grounds.

During the Migration Journey, a walk retracing the Anishinabe people’s ancestral western migration route, the walkers stopped at Spirit Mountain where they held public meetings, press conferences, and sacred ceremonies helping to highlight the effort to save Spirit Mountain. In a separate effort to draw attention to the sacred significance of the Mountain, Winona LaDuke, a nationally recognized Native American activist came to Duluth to speak at a city council meeting in the summer of 2002.

Public opposition to the golf course/hotel has grown steadily as the ecological, spiritual, and legal reasons in favor of protecting the forest have continued to come to light. Activists in Duluth have continued to emphasize that the forest is worth saving because of its intrinsic ecological value and its spiritual value to the Anishinabe people. The groups have tried to emphasize that they are not opposed to all golf courses, but are instead opposed to a golf course in this ecologically, culturally and aesthetically unique location.

This issue has united many in the environmental community and drawn concerned citizens to city council meetings. Without public opposition the golf course would most likely have been built years ago. The numbers of people that have attended and spoken at city council meetings has helped to demonstrate to the councilors the value the people of Duluth place on the old growth forest of Spirit Mountain. Cooperation among the groups involved in this struggle has helped to keep the public involved in the effort to protect Spirit Mountain.

The support of the coalition of concerned individuals and organizations has been essential. While the effort to save Spirit Mountain has been draining on the individuals working to protect this important resource, having others to help with the extended struggle has been key to maintaining momentum. Duluth’s environmental community, the Anishinabe people, and other concerned citizens have not yet won the fight to save Spirit Mountain, but through their combined efforts they have been effective in bringing environmental, legal and spiritual issues to the forefront, thereby increasing public awareness and efforts to preserve this important eco-system.

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