A wide-ranging coalition of 61 state and regional organizations (and counting) are teaming up to protect four tracts of Upper Peninsula land under federal wilderness designations.
The coalition, called “Keep the U.P. Wild,” is seeking the highest level of wilderness protection for the Trap Hills, the Ehlco Area, Norwich Plains and a 2,000-acre addition to the Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness area.
In total, the four areas would create two contiguous wilderness areas of more than 40,000 acres in Ontonagon County and nearly 19,000 acres in Houghton County. Both counties are located in the Northwest region of the U.P.
Tyler Barron, a policy advocate with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), said the effort to protect the natural areas began in the spring of 2019. Sixty-one organizations are on board currently, about 25 are in the process of officially joining the coalition and Barron says he is “confident” that Keep the U.P. Wild will comprise nearly 100 groups by the end of this summer.
Currently, Michigan is home to 16 areas protected by the federal wilderness designation, including the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Isle Royale.
The Trap Hills, located in Ontonagon County, is about 25,000 acres of nearly undisturbed habitats for diverse wildlife populations. Most is government-owned and within the Ottawa National Forest.
The Ehlco Area in Ontonagon County includes about 16,000 acres just south of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. It is also mostly federally owned, and was previously recommended by the Forest Service for wilderness evaluation in 2003.
The Norwich Plains within the Ottawa National Forest comprises about 8,000 acres, and could become more ecologically unique as its forests mature and it continues to recover from timber activity and road construction in the 1980s.
The 16,744-acre Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness in the Ottawa National Forest has been under wilderness designation since 1987. However, roughly 2,000 acres of wild Ottawa National Forest land on the area’s southwest border was not originally considered and is without the same protection. Advocates argue the addition would be an essential complement to the already-designated land because of its wildlife and ample recreational opportunities.
“It’s our opinion that these are probably the last areas in the state that would still qualify under the Wilderness Act,” Barron said. “… Because these areas are special, because Michigan has a long history of doing this [and is] certainly no stranger to it, the fact that these areas are sitting here unprotected is really reason enough to try to protect them.”
A designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act requires congressional action. After input from the Forest Service about whether the areas meet the strict criteria necessary, proposals for the designation are passed through Congress more or less like any other legislation before being presented to the president’s desk for a final signature.
Barron said there are still conversations “happening behind the scenes” with lawmakers, but the coalition most fervently hopes to secure first the support of U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) and Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.).
Stabenow chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, which Keep the U.P. Wild is focusing on most right now to make its case.
Neither Stabenow nor Peters responded immediately to a request for comment.
“We think that there’s a number of really strong cases to be made, both on the environmental side [and] on the economic side. Wilderness always brings in a big boost to the economy, and so we think that there’s a lot of different angles to play here, and that it should really satisfy a lot of wants and needs from all different types of people,” Barron said.
All four areas are home to black bear, white-tailed deer, wolves, beavers, moose and other native wildlife and flora.
The 61 groups that currently make up the coalition include the ELPC, Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), Clean Water Action, the Ecology Center, Groundwork Center, International Dark-Skies Association, Michigan Municipal League, Michigan Audubon, Religious Coalition for the Great Lakes, Wilderness Society and more.
After the coalition gathers more members and secures congressional support, Barron said, it will turn to state lawmakers for additional support.
“Because this is a federal issue, we really focused on the federal side of things first,” Barron said. “I think now that we have really done our due diligence in that way, we are wanting to turn our attention to state electeds and certainly get their thoughts and support on something like this.”
U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet); state Sens. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) and Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City); and state Reps. Gregory Markkanen (R-Hancock), Sara Cambensy (D-Marquette), Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) and John Damoose (R-Harbor Springs) — who all represent parts of the Upper Peninsula — did not respond to requests for comment.