Some Upper Peninsula residents are outraged over a U.S. Forest Service plan to close roads in the Hiawatha National Forest. Community members say they were left out of the planning process and presented with a plan they were expected to sign off on.
The proposal, called the Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Project, would close a number of specified two-track roads and trails in order to diminish accessibility and reduce alleged environmental damage. These roads are unpaved and typically not large enough for full-sized vehicles. They are often used for recreational purposes by people who ride ORVs, side-by-side ATVs and snowmobiles, but they are occasionally used to access camps and other private properties within the million-acre national forest.
The Forest Service wants to close 35 miles of existing roads that were previously ordered to be closed but never were, according to the plan. It designates these roads “operation maintenance level 1,” or “OML 1,” which it reserves for roads meant for “basic custodial care” and not vehicular traffic.
The plan also calls for decommissioning another 31 miles of roads based on criteria that are not clear in the text. The Forest Service did not respond to questions asking for a clarification.
The Camp Cooks plan also asserts that 95 percent of such roads in the forest should be closed down because they are damaging wetlands. (It’s unclear how many more roads and trails this may be, but regular visitors know that the entire forest is crisscrossed by hundreds if not thousands of these “two-rutters.”)
One of the announced goals is to limit access to make the forest more secluded for wildlife.
“The purpose of this proposal is to reduce access in areas with management emphasis on seclusion,” the plan states.
In Nahma Township, which lies entirely within the Hiawatha forest, four trail networks totaling 16.2 miles have been deemed “illegal,” with a recommendation that they be closed. The “illegal” label is claimed because these two tracks have not been designated official off-highway vehicle (OHV) areas and were not created by the Forest Service.
“The trails are located in sensitive areas including wetlands and Great Lakes coastal lands,” the plan states. “Increasing illegal use on these trails is negatively impacting hydrological and ecological function.”
Some local residents say the Forest Service has blocked their ability to provide meaningful input on the plan.
Rich Heinz, a Delta County resident who owns a business in Escanaba, said the situation has gotten out of control.
“There’s a huge problem up here with the Forest Service gone wild,” he said. Heinz added he has driven down many of the trails in question on his side-by-side and there’s no valid reason to close them.
“These people get emotional about a mud puddle because they want to turn it into a wetland,” said Heinz, who attended a Sept. 28 town hall where the plan was discussed with the Forest Service.
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, doesn’t buy the argument the Forest Service wants to shut down the roads to cut costs, another rationale the agency has cited.
“They’re not listening to the citizens,” he said. “This is an internal policy and I would challenge anybody to come up and take a look at what they’re talking about shutting down and you’ll shake your head because they’ve done no maintenance to these roads.”
Casperson and Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, penned a letter to the Forest Service’s District Ranger Joanne Sanfilippo and Matt Dickinson, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the forest, on Oct. 5 asking them to abandon the Camp Cooks project.
The two said that instead of reducing public access and use of the public land, the Forest Service should work with local communities “to improve access, management and use of these lands where it makes sense.”
Casperson’s office said it has yet to get a response from the Forest Service.
“We urge the USFS to abandon this proposed project and work with these local units of government, users and organizations to determine how this public land can further enhance the local communities,” the letter continued. The office said it was “asking the agency to start over and involve the locals at step one of any discussions regarding change of use or management of the forest.”
Sanfilippo did not respond to a request for comment. Another town hall meeting is scheduled for Oct. 18.
Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said that while the Forest Service likely had good intentions, the plan should be stopped since the community was left out of the planning process.
“Growing opposition to the Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Project is evidence that the U.S. Forest Service brought a completed plan to the people of Nahma Township with the expectation that they would simply agree without comment, and the process could proceed uninterrupted,” he said. “It is clear, however, that stakeholders in the area feel they have been excluded from the planning process and are demanding their rightful say — as taxpayers and residents — in the management of the Hiawatha National Forest.”
Hayes added, “While it may seem like a setback initially, the USFS needs to halt the current, failed process. They can then move forward with a concerted effort to work with local governments, local communities, and user and recreation groups. By doing that, they will gain the support of stakeholders and help to ensure the long-term success of the final plan.”
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