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Metropark Authority Plans Golf Course For Endangered Forest

Metropark Authority Plans Golf Course For Endangered Forest image Metropark Authority Plans Golf Course For Endangered Forest image
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Editor's Note: Ann Arborites are probably familiar with the Huron River's upstream Metroparks like Delhi or Hudson Mills. As beautiful as they are, some say it's to the east, or downstream, that a real gem of a forest lies in the Lower Huron Metropark. Words like "ancienf and "rare" are used to describe this regionally significant floodplain by local naturalists, scientists, and conservationists who regularly visit the area for recreation and study. Even though the forest is home to endangered and threatened plant species and some of Southeastem Michigan's oldest and biggest trees, the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority, operator of all Metroparks in the región, plans to build a golf course on the site. The following article examines these plans and the devastating consequences they would have on one of the last intact old-growth forests in our región. Special to AGENDA Despite official assurances to the contrary, the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA) appears to be preparing for the construction of an 1 8hole regulation golf course that will virtually destroy one of Michigan's last intact f ioodplain forests in the Lower Huron Metropark along the banks of the Huron River. Located in Wayne County just south of the intersection of I-94 and I-275, the 200-acre tract under review fordevelopment is home to numerous threatened and endangered species of plants as well as some of the area's oldest and biggest trees. Well known to area nat ural ists, the forest is located on the western bank of the Huron River just south of Belleville Lake. The old-growth forest, just one section of the Lower Huron Metropark, is owned by the HCMA, a public agency that manages 1 3 parks with over 23,000 acres of land, water resources, and built recreational facilities in five counties in southeastem Michigan. The HCMA is primarily financed by taxpayer revenue and park and recreational facility user-fees. According to HCMA Chief Planner Daniel Duncan, the Authority sim ultaneously has plans and does not have plans to build a golf course in the northemmost corner of the park. If you consult the HCMA Master Plan, this golf course has been on the books for over two decades. The current Five-Year Plan also commits this area to golf course development. Yet Duncan, as recently as Nov. 1995, insisted "at this time there are no plans, either preliminary or construction, for development of the golf course at Lower Huron." But that does not explain the reams of red, yellow, and blue construction flagging that todayflutterthroughoutthisforest. Nor does it explain a statement from the Director of the HCMA in their Winter 1996 newsletter "Presently, we are analyzing a floodplain area along the Huron River in Lower Huron Metropark for possible use as a golf site. The Authority has contracted for an Endangered Species Plant and Animal Survey of the site, and is evaluating the impact building a golf course would have on the vegetation and wildlife in the area." The impact on vegetation and wildlife would be devastating, say local naturalists, because the land in question is especially rare and worthy of protection not recreational development. Critics of the golf course plan also feel that the HCMA is unresponsive to their legitímate - and scientif cal ly-based - concerns that any imposition of a golf course on this floodplain, no matter how "sensitively" planned, would have dire consequences for this old growth forest One of the main issues is whether HCMA even recognizes the true value of the disputed forest. Paul Rentschler, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council told AGENDA he is concemed that "HCMA defines human uses and benefits too narrowly." "These intact, functioning wetlands and floodplains provide a number of significant benefits to humans," Rentschler explained. "In addition to recreation opportunities and wildlife habitat, they are vital for protecting water quality and storing water during flood events for downriver communities. In fact, for many of these reasons, Michigan DNR has officially recommended protection of the remaining floodplains in the Huron River system." Others wonder if, with the 45 existing golf courses already in operation within 1 5 miles of Lower Huron Metropark and three more presently under construction, we really want to sacrifice this final fragment of forested floodplain for another 1 8 links? The Michigan That Was The potential golf course site consists of grassy upland fields and the disputed lowland floodplain forest. Once a common streamside feature found throughout the greater Midwest, this characteristically rich ecosystem type has been largely obliterated due to agriculture, dams, river channelization projects and other developments. A 1995 federal study of "Endangered Ecosystems of the United States" reported that in the Midwest, over 98% of these historical f loodplain forests have disappeared. Reflecting this tremendous decline, this Lower Hurón Metropark site provides refuge to at least a half -dozen state and federal threatened and endangered plant species, including Virginia Snakeroot {ristolochia serpentaria) and Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). In addition to these and numerous other herbaceous species, trees as old as 200-300 years domínate the landscape. The mottled bark of giant sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) rise more than a hundred feet into the intact canopy overhead. Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) measure 10 to 1 2 feet around. An uncommonly large bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) reaches nearly fourfeet in diameter. While not legally protected, these individual specimens represent the final remnants of a forest that was virtually clearcut out of existence by the eastern lumber barons at the turn of the century. This small pocket of wild forest provides a glimpse of the Michigan that was. A 1981 report by the Michigan Natural Áreas Council (MNAC), a non-profit statewide conservation group, described the forest as "one of the best, f not the best, (forested) floodplain ecosystems in the state." Subsequent research has only confirmed this original assertion and numerous Michigan ecologists regard the remnant as regionally significant In fact, Dr. Antón Reznicek, a nationally respected taxonomist atthe University of Michigan Herbarium, has been dazzling European colleagues for years with tours to the site. By American standards, the 1 50-plusdiff erent plant species that are found within this 70-acre fragment amount to a gold mine of biological diversity. But the 55 species of trees and shrubs at this site is more than occurs in all of the northern territories of the Old World. Another distinguishing characteristic of this site is the virtual absence of invasive, exotic species. According to Reznicek, the forest understory "represents the cleanest and most intact community of native species" he has ever seen. This type of natural system once occurred more commonly along the banks of the Huron River. Two former sites now lie submerged beneath the slackwaters of Ford and Believille Dams. And the only other fragments that persist (along the Pawpaw Nature Trail, also in Lower Huron Metropark and another in Ypsilanti) are both considerably smaller and degraded as a result of invasión by exotic species. Typical of broad floodplain systems, this forest is braided throughout with ancient intersecting river channels. Found within and adjacent to these old river beds are vernal pools and wetlands. Colonies of wild ginger, horsetail, and jack-in-the-pulpit give testimony of the rich, moist soils below. Today, HCMA has closed the disputed floodplain area to entry by the public. Despite decades of safe visitation by fishermen, recreationalists, natural science tours, and university field courses, the agency has cited "public safety concerns" and now requires visitors to be in the company of an HCMA naturalist-interpreten Golf Course Development: An Unnatural Science The overall site, a mix of floodplain forest and disturbed fields totals about 200 acres, which by regulation golf standards would be a tight squeeze for all 1 8 holes. Dr. Sylvia Taylor, Chair of MNAC, reports persistent rumors of plans to instad a bridge across the ri ver in order to access even more floodplain on the Huron's eastem bank. Conversations between the HCMA and members of the local conservation community have focused upon how the golf course may or may not be planned in a mannerthat is compatible with the long-term health of the site and preserve not merely the threatened and endangered species, but the integrity of the whole system. Community leaders remain skeptical that Metroparks can construct and maintain a course and meet the needs of this sensitive area. "Simply imposing a golf course on top of this isolated ecological remnant and drawing protective circles around the listed species will not work over the long-term, " says David Zaber, a forest ecology doctoral candidate and memberof the Michigan Biodiversity Project (MBP). "The science just does not support that." Indeed, landscapes must be viewed as dynamic systems; plants and animáis cannot survive when fenced into tiny pareéis. In addition, golf courses significantly alter the land's underlying hydrology, and annually require thousands of gallons of fertilizer, pesticides, and otherchemicals that inevitably leach into any protective buffers as well as the adjacent rivers and lakes. According to Robert Grese, an associate professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the MNAC newsletter, there is good reason to be skeptical. The Metroparks Planning Staff is composed of four landscape architects. As a landscape architect himself, Grese notes that "landscape architects are generally trained as designers, not as scientists and should seek the advice of persons with technical expertise in biology, botany, community ecology, and other natural science fields that might be able to effectively plan for and protect systems like this over the long haul." While HCMA employs a numberof naturalist interpreters to provide education for park visitors, these people may lack the background to care for the kind of complicated natural system found at the Lower Huron Metropark. HCMA's lack of knowledge or interest in natural systems may in part explain why the agency needed to be told by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of their legal obligation to survey the site for the presence of threatened and endangered plants and animáis prior to any construction efforts. HCMA hired an outsideenvironmental consulting firm that possessed the necessary expertise to conduct such an inventory. The recently-released "1 995 Floral and Faunal Inventory to Identify Protected Species in LowerHuron Metropark," conducted forHCMA by SSOE Inc., of Troy, Mich., concluded that a "total of three protected plant species and one Joseph Bogaard is a freelance writer who explores issues concerning natural resources and society. He has an undergraduate degree in Zoology and recently completed a Master's degree in Natural Resource Policy at the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. This f all, Joseph worked to restore local nativo landscapes in Ann Arbor with the City's Department of Parks and Recreation Natural Áreas Preservation División. protected animal species were found on the site." That inventory, according to Dr. Reznicek, is both "incomplete and innacurate." Finding only three special plant species at the site, Reznicek points out, is contrary to other more extensive surveys of the area, including his own. Based on numerous visits to the forest throughout 1995, Reznicek was able to confirm the presence of nine of ten species of plants "of special concern" listed in the Michigan Natural Features Inventory as being present on the site. HCMA: Out of Touch & Unaccountable For some local citizens, the current dispute is merely a symptom of a larger problem that confronts HCMAand its relationship with the community. U-M Natural Resources gradúate student Christian Sinderman, of MBP laments: HCMA is a "50plus-year-old agency whose mission statement professes to be a 'regional park agency created of, by, and for the people.' Yet the agency by design and through its own policy has chosen to insulate itself from the very people it claims to serve." The seven-member HCMA Board of Commissioners, in consultation with the Planning Staff, meets quarterly to execute decisions regarding park operations and attendant budgetary ailocations. Sanctioned by the Michigan State Legislature and approved in 1940 by the voters in the counties of Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne, all commissioners are appointed: one by each of the five county govemments within the park system's territory, and two by Michigan's govemor. During its 53-year history, the HCMA has derived 95% of its income annually from the local citizenry in the form of property taxes and park fees. Critics charge that while the local citizens provide the money, they have no role to influence the internal decision-making processes. Sinderman complains that "none of the commissioners are elected by the public that they claim to serve, so there is no accountability. There are no citizen advisory boards, nor formal public input procedures. Even our letters go unanswered. It is a closed system and we have effectively been barred entry." Overthe pastyear, citizens have invited themselvestotheBoard'squarterlymeetingstopresent their concerns. But according to some accounts, speakers have been interrupted in mid-sentence and not allowed to fully present their views or those of the organizations that they may represent. One administrator at the October 1995 meeting barked at a citizen who was angry for having been cut off in the middle of her comments-"Who do you think you are telling us how to run our business?" Eariierthisyear, Greseand Reznicekof MNAC, and Judith Thompson of the Huron Valley Group Sierra Club were stood up by a numberof HCMA commissioners who failed to arrive for a planned joint tour through the floodplain woods. "It was first scheduled this spring, and then reconfirmed a week bef ore the July 13 date, but when we arrived at the park there was no one there to meet us," complains Grese. The commissioners, who initially requested the tour, claim that suddenlychanging plans forced them to visit the site before the appointed hour and they were unable to notify the others. In the end, a number of the commissioners did walk the site, but only in the company of Duncan, the HCMA landscape architect who intends to design the golf course. "And," Grese adds, "as we left the parking lot to enter the woods, we discovered that a fi ve-f oot wide swath of vegetation had been mowed to ground zero right through the site." At the request of the planning staff, maintenance crews drove mowersthough the woods to "mark the trail more clearly" for the commissioners. Because many of the sensitivo and rare plants happen to be found at the site along the path, questions linger about whether the HCMA violated the state's Endangered Species Act for possible unauthorized adverse impacts of legal ly protected species. ForGrese, "the fact that HCMA mowed a five-foot path through this fragüe nant should give a pretty good ndication of the sensiti vity with which the staff may manage natural áreas and threatened or endangered species." Some longtime members of MNAC express particular f njstration at the present debate and in particular, the agency's hostility to public participation and concerns. In 1 981 , the late Dr. Paul Thompson, a research scientist with the Cranbrook Institute, presented the results of his extensive regionwide ecological inventory to the HCMA Board of Commissioners. In a 1 994 letter to the MDNR, he recounted the phenomenal diversity of plant life that he encountered and described the western bank of the Huron River in Lower Huron Metropark as "perhaps the finest example of lowland forest remaining in southeastem Michigan." In 1981, Thompson writes, he received verbal assurances that the HCMA had no plans to develop the area, though no written commitment wasmade. "[TJheyagreed to protect this most important resource, but now deny any such action was taken." For many, questions extend beyond whether or not we should protect this fragüe ancient floodplain remnant. It appears to some community members that decisions on park projects and activities are disproportionately based on revenue generating capacity. During the last fiscal year, HCMA operating budget amounted to over $40 million. In fact, revenues exceeded expend tures, and the agency turned an 8% profit. Observers are concemed that the agency's reliance on municipal-type recreational facilities such as Metro Beach will lead to spiraling capital costs and the need for increased outlays in order for HCMAto successfully compete with private operations in the area. Kathleen Thompson, formerchairof MNAC, in an Oct 1 995 letter to an HCMA commissioner, asks "if the costs of maintaining aging facilities and retiring debt obligations will be continually supported by increasing property taxes and user revenues; or will the natu ral resources that distinguish the regional parks system be consumed in order to genérate more user revenues to pay for today's costs?" F01L0W-UP INFO LOCAL COMMUNITY GROUPS that are organizing to resist HCMA attempts to destroy an endangered floodplain forest and repace it with another golf course: Michigan Natural Áreas Council Robert Grese 763-0645 Dr. Anton Reznicek 764-5544 Audubon Society Sheri Smith 994-3569 Michigan Biodiversity Project Christian Sinderman 665-1 692 Sierra Club, Huron Valley Group Judy Thompson 677-251 7 Huron River Watershed Council Paul Rentschler 769-5123 Michigan Botanical Club Barb Madson 769-2992 Clean Water Action Dave Dempsey 517-337-4447 Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority All Commissioners, the Director and Deputy Director of the HCMA can be reached at the folbwing address: Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority Administrative Offices High Ridge Drive Box 2001 Brighton, Ml 48116 Telephone: (810) 227-2757 Toll-free: 1 -800-47-PARKS With the 45 existing golf courses already in operation within 15 miles of Lower Huron Metropark and three more presently under construction, do we really want to sacrifice this final fragment of forested floodplain for another 18 links?


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