WATERSMEET, Mich. — For more than seven years, Kathy Stupak-Thrall has battled the government over a lake in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula.
She has been separated from her family for long periods, spent more than $200,000 on legal costs and run unsuccessfully for Congress and the state Legislature on a property-rights platform.
Her long struggle with the U.S. Forest Service has alienated some relatives and mystified friends. Environmentalists label her a zealot who simply doesn't want to take orders from Uncle Sam.
To Stupak-Thrall, it's about fighting for freedom and honoring her grandparents, immigrants from Czechoslovakia who bought the lakefront land in the 1930s.
"They came to this country to escape oppression and tyranny," she says. "If I were to relinquish my property rights, my civil rights . . . that's a slap in the face to my grandparents."
Her struggle has become a rallying cry for the property-rights movement, and both sides agree it could set legal precedents for future clashes between government and private landowners.
The case poses this question:
The government creates a wilderness area that includes most, but not all, of a lake. For decades, owners of waterfront cottages have used the lake for forms of recreation, such as motorboating, that are restricted under new wilderness regulations.
Must the private landowners obey the federal rules, even though their houses are outside the wilderness boundary?
Yes, says the Forest Service. The agency says it's the only way to protect the serenity and natural values of the wilderness.
No way, say Stupak-Thrall and her neighbors, Michael and Bodil Gajewski. Michigan law gives waterfront property owners "riparian rights" that include access to the water body's entire surface for recreation. The federal rules, they say, violate those rights.
Unable to compromise, the landowners and the feds have dueled in court since 1993, with no end in sight.
The debate centers on Crooked Lake, a twisting, 2 1/2-mile-long waterway in Gogebic County near the Wisconsin border. All but about 40 acres of the 600-acre lake are within the Sylvania Wilderness Area, which Congress established under the Michigan Wilderness Act of 1987.
A few modest dwellings are scattered along the lake's northern shore, which falls outside the wilderness boundary. One was built by Stupak-Thrall's grandparents and now belongs to her.
It was a vacation home for her family, who live in Oswego, Ill. But since the fight started, she's spent more nights in the cabin than at home.
The Gajewskis own a small fishing resort on the lake.
In 1990, the Forest Service began developing a management plan for Sylvania, an 18,327-acre section of the Ottawa National Forest. Its rolling hills and old-growth forests are dotted with lakes and marshes. Among the inhabitants are bears, gray wolves, bald eagles and songbirds.
Federal law defines wilderness as a place where nature takes its course and man's influence is kept to an absolute minimum. Motor vehicles are taboo. Recreation is limited to hiking, fishing and other quiet pursuits.
In Sylvania, the Forest Service decided, camping would be allowed only at primitive sites without picnic tables or outhouses. Visual symbols of human presence, such as signs, would be removed. Existing trails would be maintained, but no new ones built.
Mechanical devices from boom boxes to sailboats would be outlawed, as would wheeled vehicles (except non-motorized wheelchairs) and disposable containers, such as cans and bottles, that cannot be burned. Motorboats would be banned, except those with small electric motors producing no-wake speeds--ruling out water-skiing and speedboating.
But what about Crooked Lake and three others with small sections that straddle the Sylvania boundary? One of them, Clark Lake, already was part of a national recreation area and off-limits to motors. But for years, residents had used the others--Crooked, Big Bateau and Devils Head--for activities such as motorboating that might conflict with wilderness restrictions.
The Forest Service's answer: The rules would be effective for the parts of the lakes inside the wilderness area. In the case of Crooked Lake, that would mean about 95% of the surface waters but not the 40-acre bay outside the boundary.
Residents on the other lakes had mixed reactions, though no appeals were filed. But Stupak-Thrall and the Gajewskis insisted their riparian rights exempted them.
After the agency issued its rules in 1992, Stupak-Thrall's husband, Ben Thrall, was ticketed for having a can of soda pop in his boat on the wilderness side of the boundary.
The Gajewskis complained that their resort customers were harassed and cited for various offenses, including having fishing worms in the wrong type of container. Their clientele has fallen drastically in recent years.
"We lost $30,000 last year," says Michael Gajewski, who has multiple sclerosis and contends stress from the controversy has worsened his condition. "If this keeps up, we're bankrupt."