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Federal act to protect Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior, other public lands creates buzz
The Grand Rapids Press
Howard Meyerson
April 06, 2009

It has been years since I've heard as excited a buzz as I have this week. President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Act on Monday, which designates 2 million acres of wilderness across the country and protects rivers, national parks and trails.

In Michigan, that includes the 11,740-acre Beaver Basin Wilderness at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior.
AP File PhotoNorth Ridge hiking trail at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior.

The last big thrill was in 1996 when President Bill Clinton made Utah's Grand Staircase Escalante a National Monument. People were jazzed, including myself. That 1.9 million-acre parcel, with its magnificent cliffs, terraces and canyons was to be protected for future generations.

It was President Lyndon Johnson who signed the federal Wilderness Act in 1964, landmark legislation that defined the term for the American public and created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

That act created 9 million acres of wilderness across the country. It opened the door for the 1987 Michigan Wilderness Act and designation of 10 federally protected wilderness areas in the state.

This week's bill signing gave us 11.

"It takes the options off the table," said Gregg Bruff, the heritage chief for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. "There is no 900-pound gorilla waiting over the hill, but it does assure that people get to enjoy a primitive experience into the long-term future."

Bruff means there is no pressing demand for development. But it could happen some time, and this week's wilderness designation protects against that.

Users will not see much change at the lakeshore, according to Bruff.

The acreage in the Beaver Basin Wilderness has been managed like wilderness since 2004. That's when park staff released a general management plan that identified the area as possible future wilderness.

Park users will continue to enjoy the park as they have. No roads will be closed. Electric motors can be used on Little Beaver and Beaver lakes. Boats still can beach on the Lake Superior shoreline and hunters still can chase their quarry.

"The old saying, 'We are not making any more wilderness' is true," Bruff said. "Once the areas are gone they are hard to retrieve."

That's the basis behind the 1,000-page federal document signed into law this week, more than 160 pieces of legislation.

"This legislation guarantees that we will not take our forests, rivers, oceans, national parks, monuments and wilderness areas for granted; but rather we will set them aside and guard their sanctity for everyone to share," Obama said in his public address.

National Park watchdogs are thrilled. Forty-six bills in the act targeted national parks. They include the designation of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Michigan and helping the Keweenaw National Historical Park with administrative issues that have hampered its funding.

It protects the 250,000-acre backcountry of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Zion National Park in Utah, among others, which are experiencing development pressures.

"President Nixon made a determination in 1974 that much of the (Rocky Mountain National) park should be wilderness," said Elise Russel Liguory, the legislative staff for the National Parks Conservation Association. "And it has been managed that way since, but we have hoped and pushed so that it would be put into law."

She called Zion National Park, "an iconic park," for Americans. It drew 2.7 million visitors in 2008.

Wilderness protection was established there for 125,000 acres and 165 miles of the Virgin River that runs through it.

The act also protects 1,000 new miles under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers program. It provides the National Park Service with the statutory authority it has lacked to buy land from willing sellers adjacent to national trails.

Bruce Mathews, the director for the North Country Trail Association, in Lowell, said that provision long has been needed.

"It's the first of two steps," he said. Getting Congress to authorize funding comes next.

The bill also recognizes the authority of the federal Bureau of Land Management to manage the 26-million acre National Landscape Conservation System.

That includes 924 of the nation's most spectacular lands, including the Grand Staircase in Utah.

"This bill is potentially the most significant piece of conservation legislation since the national parks were designated more than 100 years ago," said Seth Levy, the policy and stewardship manager for the American Hiking Society.

"It moves to preserve and hold our natural resources as an opportunity and birthright of future generations. It was inspiring to see it come to be."

There is an air of excitement, indeed.


 

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