Environment Picture

MEC steps up to chart a vision for Michigan’s “Big Wild”

Brad Garmon appointed to Pigeon River Country Advisory Council
The Pigeon River Country State Forest has for decades been the crucible for conservation in Michigan. It’s the focus of heated debates and hard-won compromises about how to manage a place—and by extension, a state—rich in both stunning natural beauty and precious natural resources.

Like the cold, swift trout streams that rise from its highlands, critical natural resource policy challenges and solutions tend to spring from the forest and flow beyond its boundaries.

The Pigeon River Country Advisory Council (PRCAC) is where the forest’s representative stakeholders each make the case for their vision of its future, and the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) now has a new face on that council. With it comes a fresh opportunity to promote thoughtful, forward-looking policies for the forest and for public lands throughout Michigan.

Brad Garmon, MEC’s director of conservation and emerging issues, was appointed to the 18-member PRCAC in the fall and began serving in January. He replaces Bob Hess, a retired Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who recently stepped down from the PRCAC after serving on behalf of MEC for nine years.

Hess said Garmon’s understanding of both Lansing politics and Michigan’s rural communities will be a big asset to the Pigeon River Country.

“I was really happy when Brad was appointed because I think it gives MEC a wonderful opportunity to get more familiar with the Pigeon and some of the issues up there,” Hess said. “It will be good for the Pigeon to have MEC more involved.”

The advisory council provides input on managing the Pigeon in the form of recommendations to the DNR director. It was created to uphold the Concept of Management the DNR adopted in 1973 after years of contentious litigation over oil and gas issues. The goal is to forever safeguard the forest’s wild character.

Wild elk and rugged hills
And wild it is. Over 106,000 acres, the Pigeon is the largest contiguous area of public land in the Lower Peninsula and home to one of the biggest wild elk herds east of the Mississippi River. Located about 20 miles northeast of Gaylord, the forest has just enough roads, campgrounds and hiking trails to make it an inviting weekend destination, but with rugged hills, deep woods and ice-cold streams that beg visitors to roam longer and explore further.

Among the most famous explorers of the Pigeon was Ernest Hemingway. Writing about “the pine plains beyond Vanderbilt” in 1919—the year the state forest was established but before reforestation efforts hid the scars of clear-cut logging in the Pigeon—Hemingway told a friend, “that … Country is the greatest I’ve ever been in.”

Conservationist P.S. Lovejoy, the architect behind the Pigeon River State Forest’s creation and coiner of the “Big Wild” nickname, was perhaps the Pigeon’s most passionate spokesperson. His vision of a rugged and unspoiled public natural area deeply informed the Concept of Management and remains the guiding ideal behind state management of the forest.

“Don’t we all want, yen for, need, some considerable ‘getting away’ from the crowds and the lawn mowers and the tulips? Isn’t that the yen for the Big Wild feel and flavor? I claim it is,” he wrote.

Lovejoy wanted a truly wild forest. While maintaining the “Big Wild feel and flavor” is central to the advisory council’s purpose, several factors—most notably, oil and gas exploration and drilling in the 1970s—make that job a complex one.

Politics intrude
More recently, those complications have come in the form of policies that erode the flexibility of the state to quickly move to acquire strategic parcels of private land within the Pigeon—tracts with river frontage, prime elk habitat or other assets that make them a priority.

In 2012, the legislature exerted unprecedented control over the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. They stripped from the state budget the Trust Fund Board’s recommendation to include a flexible pool of money specifically to help the DNR purchase privately owned “inholding” parcels that might pop up for sale within tracts of state land. The Trust Fund arose in 1976 as part of a compromise allowing oil and gas drilling in parts of the Pigeon. It uses interest from royalties on the sale and lease of state-owned oil and gas rights to purchase and improve public recreational facilities in Michigan.

“We need to place a priority on getting the important inholdings when we can to solidify the boundaries so we don’t have parcels within the forest selling and getting intensely developed,” Garmon said. “It’s really frustrating when those key parcels pop up and we’re not able to go and get them. It makes it harder and more expensive for the DNR to manage the area, and it compromises the wild feel of the place.”

Without quick access to Trust Fund cash to purchase those smaller inholdings when they go up for sale, the DNR has to coordinate complicated and time-consuming workarounds, like seeking short-term grants from conservation partners to secure key parcels that might otherwise end up as subdivisions. The grants, when they work, are typically repaid later by the Trust Fund anyway, but valuable opportunities are lost in the meantime.

“If it’s a high-priority area, the landowners aren’t going to wait to sell it to the state,” said Hess, Garmon’s predecessor on the advisory council. “A lot of people would love to have a private inholding in the Pigeon.”

Case in point: While the Pigeon’s managers were writing grant applications for the purchase of an 80-acre tract called the Bryce Trust that would have connected a fragmented section of the Pigeon’s southern border, a private party bought the land.

Local understanding
Another recent policy shift impacting the ability to secure inholdings includes requiring a vote of approval from local elected officials before the state buys land in that jurisdiction. While the approach makes quick actions difficult, Hess said there is a bright side of the new local-approval policy. It provides an opportunity to meet with local officials and build a shared understanding of the Pigeon’s value and the rationale for its unique management strategy that includes restrictions on horseback riding, off-road vehicles (ORVs) and other activities.

Scott Whitcomb, the DNR unit manager for the Pigeon who leads that community outreach, said it’s understandable that communities near state forests might want to allow the full arsenal of outdoor activities to pump up local economies.

“But if in attempting to provide for the economic development you were to allow things like ORVs or additional mineral extraction, which would be detrimental to the wild characteristics of the forest, then we could potentially lose the very goals and objectives, the wild character we are managing for here in the Pigeon,”

Whitcomb said. “If we had the same land-use practices as the surrounding state forest land, we would lose some of the mystique that makes the Pigeon River Country special.” Whitcomb said Garmon adds a fresh perspective and long-term thinking to the advisory council that will be valuable in protecting the Pigeon’s wild character.

“Brad has made an immediate impact in just a short time on the council,” he said. “He brings a statewide land management perspective and recognizes the forest as being a special place among Michigan’s public lands. I’ve also seen that he is a creative thinker and not afraid to challenge the status quo.”
-Andy McGlashen
RELATED TOPICS: conservation, land use, legislation
© Copyright Michigan Environmental Council, All rights reserved