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Wilderness Plans Trigger Resentment

Residents near Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan were expecting the land to be developed more, not sequestered.

August 01, 2004|John Flesher | Associated Press Writer

MUNISING, Mich. — Formed over millenniums by Lake Superior's crashing waves and fierce gusts, the multicolored sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore are a wondrous sight.

A visitor can follow the cliffs, about 200 feet high, for a dozen miles along the shoreline, marveling at rock formations that have inspired such monikers as Miner's Castle and Rainbow Cave.

No less impressive are the Grand Sable Dunes, towering even higher near the park's eastern end. Farther inland, hiking trails meander through panoramic landscapes of beech-maple forests and wetland tamarack.

The peaceful setting contrasts with a fierce battle being waged over whether to designate about 16% of the park as wilderness -- making it off-limits to motorized recreation.

It's a popular idea with many visitors and environmental activists who treasure Pictured Rocks and other national parks as places of beauty and solitude.

"You can go there and calm down a bit, realize life is good," said Dave Allen of Marquette. "It's also important from a biological perspective to have areas where nature is allowed to manage itself

Among the most outspoken opponents are longtime residents of the countryside and small towns near the lakeshore -- hotbeds of resentment since the national park was created in 1966.

"My roots go deep, and I get real passionate about this area," said Rod DesJardins, mayor of Munising, a community of 2,500 at the park's western gateway.

"We feel we take good care of it and we resent people ... telling us what to do," said DesJardins, 44, a descendant of fishermen, boat builders and lumberjacks who made their living on the southern shore of Lake Superior as far back as the mid-1800s.

Some critics remain bitter over losing private backwoods camps after the park borders were drawn. Owners say the government broke promises of extensive development, including a shoreline drive, which park officials say was ruled out by environmental regulations.

About 400,000 people visit the park annually, and a 2001 study said they spent $14.8 million in the area. But some business owners say the economic boom they expected hasn't materialized.

The 71,397-acre park extends 42 miles along the shoreline between Munising and Grand Marais, an even tinier village to the northeast.

The proposal to designate 11,739 acres as wilderness is the most controversial part of a wide-ranging management plan being developed for Pictured Rocks. The National Park Service puts together such plans for individual parks and updates them periodically; Pictured Rocks hasn't had a revision since 1981.

The city of Munising and Alger County have adopted resolutions against the wilderness. Park officials, who expect to make a decision this summer, say much of the opposition is based on bad information.

"Some people believe a wilderness is where you lock it up and throw away the key and no one uses it. That's just not true," said Larry Hoch, chief ranger. "It's really not going to change that much. Much of the area is managed as wilderness already."

Doug Scheuneman Sr., a leader of the Alger County Fish and Game Alliance, doesn't buy it.

The wilderness designation would prohibit motorboats on Beaver Lake and nearby Little Beaver Lake. Both are popular with anglers, who insist that they aren't overrun with noisy motors.

"I've fished on Beaver Lake for 15 years and if I've ever seen more than five motorboats there at a time, I don't remember it," Scheuneman said.

Roads in the Beaver Basin area, the heart of the park interior, would be closed. That would make the area inaccessible to many elderly and disabled people who have hunted and fished there all their lives, Scheuneman said.

Park managers counter that other features in the plan would benefit the disabled, such as a new campground near Miner's Castle overlook, the most frequently visited area. It is outside the wilderness area and reachable by car.

The goal of the management plan is to improve guest amenities at the heavily visited eastern and western ends while keeping the interior primitive, where hikers might occasionally glimpse a black bear or hear a wolf's howl.

Most of the nearly 800 people who submitted comments liked that approach, Hoch said. Some wanted even more wilderness.

DesJardins predicts an ironic twist if the wilderness designation goes through: So many backpackers will flock to Pictured Rocks in search of solitude, they'll "bump into somebody every five minutes."

Michigan's national and state forests offer plenty of quiet refuges, he said. "I can take you to 500 places right here in Alger County where you can see plenty of wildlife and beautiful scenery, and you won't see a man for a week."

If the wilderness area gets overcrowded, the Park Service can issue backcountry passes to limit visitors and protect the natural resources, said Anne Woiwode, state director of the Sierra Club.

Michigan's national forests are crisscrossed by about 10,000 miles of roads, mostly for timber cutting, she said. "It makes these few wilderness areas that are permanently protected from roading and logging incredibly rare and precious."

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