Environment Picture

Michigan fly fishing: Best in the nation!

So why are some lawmakers trying to undercut the foundations for Pure Michigan success stories?
Michigan has the best fly fishing in the nation. Better than legendary Western destinations like Idaho, Wyoming and Montana according, to the “Best 12 States for Fly Fishing” rankings from Fly Talk, the fly fishing blog of Field & Stream magazine.

These kinds of accolades should be a big deal in Michigan, a state that too often finds itself atop more dubious lists (population loss and unemployment, for example).

But instead of celebrating the state’s “Pure Michigan” success stories, many Lansing politicians are proposing to cut the legs out from under the laws, funding and traditions that nurture these successes.

It is jobs and the economy—not just Pure Michigan symbolism—at stake. The state’s travel and tourism sector is a bright spot in a dismal economy, generating $18.1 billion in direct travel expenditures, $874 million in state taxes and 192,000 jobs statewide in 2009, according to a Michigan State University study.

This success starts with the resources themselves. In the case of fishing: “Michigan has the best mix of diverse fisheries and quality fisheries of any state,” says Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited. “Nowhere else can you find so many quality fishing opportunities for so many different species of fish. From salmon, steelhead and trout to panfish, muskies and carp—Michigan has them all, and has an incredible abundance of the waters to pursue them.”

But Michigan’s ranking is also a testament to an outdoor culture that has long valued natural resource management, grassroots resource protection and abundant public access.

To explain their top-spot ranking, Fly Talk points out that “the first brown trout in America was planted (in Michigan). Trout Unlimited started here. You’re never more than a few miles or so from a fly-fishable body of water.”

But this tradition is under attack in the State Capitol today as conservative lawmakers have their sights set on the environmental protections that preserve these world-class resources. At press time lawmakers were proposing, among other things: mandatory caps prohibiting the state from acquiring land for habitat protection and outdoor recreation; removing the governor’s authority to protect the Great Lakes; and gutting funding for programs that clean up polluted water and land.

“Michigan’s natural resources for freshwater fisheries are second to none,” says Marvin Roberson, forest ecologist with the Michigan Sierra Club. “However, our political leadership needs to step up and not only promote Pure Michigan but protect it with the same vigor. It is more important than ever that advocacy groups make sure our elected officials are getting the message.”

Fishing’s legacy
Michigan’s fly fishing heritage has long produced nationally known writers, fighters and outdoor leaders. The Adams—an elegant dry fly pattern used by anglers everywhere—was first tied on the banks of Michigan’s Boardman River. From Jerry Dennis and John Voelker (aka Robert Traver) to the iconic Au Sable River guide Rusty Gates, who passed away in late 2010, Michigan’s fly fishing community has produced memorable and eloquent conservationists.

“Fly fishing has become incredibly popular over the last 20 years, and has recruited countless new anglers to the sport of angling,” agrees Burroughs. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report, “gateway activities” like fishing, running, camping, bicycling and hiking are consistently popular and accessible and frequently inspire people to take part in other outdoor activities.

But the new conservation leaders seeking to carry on this tradition are under mounting pressure to guard against projects and decisions that jeopardize the state’s rich cold water fisheries.

A spider web of pipelines
According to Roberson, the resources face plenty of threats, including oil and natural gas development and new hydraulic fracturing technology for natural gas extraction. And, he points out, “old, uninspected pipelines that cross every major trout stream in the state.”

Earlier this year, MEC member group the Anglers of the Au Sable commissioned a special report from respected investigative journalist Jeff Alexander. He documented the risk to our woods and waters both from natural gas exploration and the largely unregulated spider web of oil and gas pipelines that crisscross the Au Sable watershed.

The report notes that the owner of a 58-year old, 645-mile long pipeline—the largest oil pipeline in the Midwest, carrying up to 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids beneath the Au Sable every day—is Enbridge Energy. That company recently made headlines for a massive pipeline spill near Marshall. The informative report highlights the challenges, including questions about maintenance responsibility and oversight of these pipelines. It is available on the Anglers website: www.ausableanglers.org.

It also appears that a long-fought court case that stopped a DEQ proposal to dump treated wastewater in an Au Sable tributary known as Kolke Creek is headed back to court again. Attorney General Bill Schuette pushed to reopen the case earlier this year.

“The Kolke Creek re-decision reflects lousy political leadership and disrespect for Michigan’s world class resources,” says Roberson. “The attorney general just says, ‘I didn’t like the last decision, but the court makeup is different now so would you please just vote again, even though there are no new issues?’”

Meanwhile, Michigan Trout Unlimited is busy fighting a legal battle to ensure full dam removal and re-establishment of fish passage at the private Golden Lotus Dam on the Pigeon River. The dam has failed repeatedly, killing thousands of fish and ruining habitat on some of the best trout waters in the country. A judge ordered the dam removed last year, but a weak interpretation of the court decision that could leave part of the dam and continue to inhibit fish passage has sent TU director Bryan Burroughs to court to push for full removal.

“The reluctance of the Michigan DEQ and DNR to fight for removal of the dam and restoration of the fishery is discouraging,” says Burroughs. “It highlights the danger of taking our natural fisheries—both their potential and their abundance—for granted and not fighting aggressively to enhance and protect our world-class fisheries.”

A water resource that pays dividends
The benefit of investing and growing the outdoor recreation sector of Michigan’s economy is obvious to anyone able to look out their window. Economic developers understand it as well as environmentalists: Our Pure Michigan brand is based on our natural resources and the quality of life they provide.

The state legislature’s attacks on the DNR and our public lands and water resources are a travesty. Michigan has a treasure in our miles of trails, trout streams and state forests. These are the assets that can make us attractive to precisely the kinds of young professionals we want to build the state’s future.

Michigan should be creating a policy and funding framework worthy of the image we project around the nation—not disinvesting in the Pure Michigan brand just as it is paying dividends.

Brad Garmon is director of conservation and emerging issues with the Michigan Environmental Council. He can be reached at brad@environmentalcouncil.org.
-By Brad Garmon, MEC
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