Posted on September 13, 2022
Ecosystem protections are colliding with public access and safety concerns at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where an investigation into the “illegal diversion” of a river outlet has dredged up a thorny debate about balancing uses of public land.
In mid-August, the National Park Service began investigating a surprise reconfiguration of the Platte River mouth; a manmade effort which federal officials say was illegal, and, depending on how the investigation unfolds, could result in criminal charges.
But state and township officials, as well as local business owners and angler groups, aren’t so gung-ho about bringing the hammer down on whoever altered the river mouth. They say changes created by adjusting the outflow have benefitted the river elsewhere and the outflow diversion has made it easier for boats to access Lake Michigan.
The resulting investigation has focused attention on underlying tensions around competing land management philosophies at the purest of Pure Michigan destinations.
At the local level, township officials want the river mouth dredged; arguing that its shallowness impedes access to Platte Bay for rescue boats — a public safety concern in a high-use area frequented by throngs of beachgoers, kayakers and tubers each summer.
At the federal level, the Park Service wants the river to run wild; returning to its natural state before dredging began after a deadly 1967 storm that wreaked havoc on the bay.
At the state level, Michigan officials want to create a new access point nearby; but the park, which owns the land, says doing so might trample endangered species habitat.
Nature is the boss at Sleeping Bear, say park officials.
“Boater access will have to adapt to nature,” said Scott Tucker, superintendent of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “That’s one of the goals of the National Park Service; is to restore natural processes. And once we restore the natural processes, boaters and recreation will have to adapt to nature rather than adapting nature to recreation.”
If that approach puts the public at greater risk, so be it.
“We let people climb Mount McKinley. We let people climb Half Dome and we don’t alter nature for those incidents,” said Tucker. “Taking risk is part of participating in public lands.”
“Access to the bay will depend on conditions,” Tucker continued. “That’s the same if you’re climbing Denali or you’re fishing in the Everglades.”
Dredging dates back to infamous storm
At Platte River Point, conditions since the federal government took ownership of the surrounding land amid establishment of the park in 1970 have been managed by dredging.
The Lower Platte River is one of the only remaining undeveloped river or large creek outlets on the state’s Lake Michigan coast. The mouth has historically migrated down the beach but has not wandered too far since the onset of dredging in 1968, according to historic aerials.
Dredging began after the infamous “coho fever” storm of 1967, in which seven people died when fishing boats were unable to enter the shallow river mouth.
The work took place after Labor Day. Sand and gravel from the river mouth was piled on each bank. The Park Service stopped dredging in 2013 for budgetary reasons and the state, which operates a fish hatchery upriver, stepped in for a few years. The effort cost about $10,000 annually and involved an excavator mechanically digging out the mouth.
Dredging stopped entirely in 2016 when the Park Service decided it wanted the spoils removed from the beach and the mouth restored to a natural state. A $500,000 project to remove the spoils was set to finally launch this fall before the diversion forced its postponement.
Before the diversion, park officials had largely gotten what they wanted. Tucker said sediment buildup “reset” the outlet, pushing it nearly 1,000 feet east down the beach this summer, creating a long sand spit similar what 1950s satellite photos in the park’s restoration plan show.
The new topography expanded habitat for piping plover nesting adjacent to areas already restricted to protect habitat for the tiny endangered bird — which is making recovery strides across the region. Beachgoers frolicked on the long spit. But the long, meandering river mouth was too shallow for anything beyond small boats and kayaks to navigate.
It also functioned as a kind of drain plug, helping trap water upstream where state officials say it was over-saturating marshlands and exacerbating erosion in some areas.
Heather Hettinger, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Traverse City, said the newly cut channel helped alleviate upstream pressure in the river, which dropped by a foot once the flow cut through the sand spit.
“If anything, the resource impacts were positive,” she said.
“We saw some pretty good things happen upstream that will hopefully change the way people are using the river for the better,” Hettinger said. “We’re seeing better flow and sediment transport.”
“We didn’t feel like the sky was falling.”
Tragedies in Platte Bay on high-use holidays
The DNR has been fielding lots of flak since dredging ceased
At the end of Lake Michigan Road in Benzie County, boaters put into the Platte River about 900 feet from the mouth at a county launch next to Lake Township Park.
It’s the only launch between Empire and Frankfort and the most direct access point to Platte Bay for boat anglers targeting salmon during their annual fall spawning runs.
“Locals and anglers that used to fish there have been very vocal that they’d like to see it dredged,” said Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the DNR. “We get calls every fall asking why we aren’t dredging it.”
The launch is the only immediate access for water response craft in the event of an emergency, which is not unheard of on Platte Bay’s sometimes unruly waters. Since dredging stopped seven years ago, two people have died in the bay. In 2020, a teenager from Holt drowned swimming in Lake Michigan on the Fourth of July. In 2016, 21-year-old Tyler Spink capsized while on a Labor Day kayak trip. His body was found two years later.
In June, those deaths were referenced in a plea for help made by Lake Township officials concerned about public safety. The township sent requests to help spur dredging this summer to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, state Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, and state Sen. Curt VanderWall, R-Scottville.
“Due to the current status of the river mouth, emergency vessels would have a very difficult (if not impossible) time launching to offer aid,” wrote Anna Grobe, Lake Township supervisor.
That was on June 8. Three months later, Grobe said the response has been underwhelming. In late August, prior to Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters’ stop in Traverse City as part of a statewide motorcycle tour to talk-up infrastructure funding, Grobe called the senator’s office several times for the itinerary so she could raise the issue with him. No luck.
“It’s basically been radio silence here,” Grobe said.
Across M-22 from the township offices, Kyle Orr, owner of Riverside Canoe Trips, said there’s a lot of local frustration at diversion investigation and the park’s position on dredging.
The park is supposed to maintain boater access in high-use areas in accordance with its management plan, Orr said, and many locals question why it won’t dredge the Platte River mouth but will dredge the North Manitou Island ferry docks.
“The general local sentiment is that the Park Service has blown this way out of proportion,” said Orr. “We’re all like ‘what are we doing here?’”
When emergencies arise, it’s usually on the lake — not the river, he said, and “it would be nice for a rescue boat to be able to get out there in a timely fashion,” Orr said.
“We lost someone two summers ago and there was no way a boat could get out.”
“Can we please find a compromise?” he asked.
Habitat concerns derail alternative launch
A potential solution was studied in the park’s 2016 assessment. To maintain boater access absent dredging, the DNR proposed a new boat launch directly onto Platte Bay about a mile-and-a-half east of the river mouth at the end of Tiesma Road. Although parts of the park are federally designated wilderness, the proposed launch area is not.
The Park Service studied the idea, which would involve some improvements to the road and creation of a small parking lot to support a removable launch ramp. However, it was rejected over concerns about potential impact on piping plover habitat and other threatened or endangered species like the Pitcher’s thistle and Pumpbelly’s bromegrass dune plants.
A new launch site could actually be a safety issue of its own, argued the Park Service, writing in its 2016 assessment that “impacts to boater safety at the new ramp may be adverse as boaters would have unprotected access similar to other accesses around Lake Michigan.”
Tucker said that because the alternative launch was directly onto Lake Michigan, it was seen as “a huge safety issue.”
“And, two, it was through that same critical dune piping plover habitat,” Tucker said.
The Michigan DNR does not share those concerns.
“Piping plover numbers in the park are stable and good,” said Hettinger. “From a plant standpoint, we have so much shoreline in the park and it’s in such good shape. You’re talking about one tiny area within the national lakeshore where we’re trying to maintain access so people can enjoy it.”
Hettinger said the DNR is very concerned about safety issues created by the lack of boater access. Beyond rescue craft, should conditions worsen while a boat is on Platte Bay, the nearest refuge is now either Frankfort, which is 10 miles south, or Empire, which is six miles north.
The depth in parts of the bay is 200 feet — which is great for salmon and hiding long lost shipwrecks but not so great for someone caught in rough weather. Much would depend on the direction and severity of the wind, Hettinger said. Any rescue would be at least 20 minutes away for someone in trouble — and that’s the best-case scenario.
“If the weather turns up in Platte Bay and you need to leave, the odds are good you’re going to have problems getting back to Empire,” Hettinger said.
“You may have a problem getting back to Frankfort.”
The DNR feels responsible for the fishery in Platte Bay, which is a byproduct of introducing coho salmon in the 1960s as a way to combat invasive alewives. The fish were reared and first introduced in the Platte River, which is still an important spawning stream where coho eggs are collected.
Wesley and Hettinger said the DNR would be willing to help pay for a new access point, either using state Natural Resources Trust Fund or Great Lakes Fisheries Trust money. Park natural resources, such as wildlife, are jointly managed, but Hettinger said the DNR has little leverage to force a reluctant property owner to build something it doesn’t want to.
On the investigation front, Tucker said the Park Service is still soliciting tips and trying to determine exactly what happened on Aug. 14 and 15 when the river breached the spit. Nobody has been detained or arrested, he said. Once completed, the park will consult with the U.S. District Attorney’s office in Grand Rapids on any potential charges.
At minimum, Tucker said what happened would likely result in some violation of a federal code which prohibits digging or disturbing natural, cultural and archeological resources.
Going forward, Tucker said the park will also step-up public messaging around the river mouth, which is heavily frequented by beachgoers who like to move rocks around.
In the meantime, state officials are expecting Lake Michigan to erase any evidence of man’s tampering this fall. A couple good storms out of the north-northwest and the lake will reconfigure the Platte outlet in whatever way it sees fit, Hettinger said.
Unfortunately, thorny access concerns will remain.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world to launch a boat on the Platte in the dark, motor out and when the sun comes up, you’re catching these gorgeous coho salmon in this beautiful wilderness area,” Hettinger said. “It’s really sad to see that’s an experience that’s being compromised because we can’t maintain access for the public.”