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Au Sable River groups uncertain on proposed Camp Grayling expansion

An aerial photo of the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center.
Camp Grayling
An aerial photo of the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center.

The largest National Guard training facility in the country could be getting bigger — much bigger.

Last month, the Michigan National Guard announced it wants to more than double the size of Camp Grayling, a training complex that spans three northern Michigan counties. The military requested access to lease more than 160,000 acres from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

The land would remain in DNR ownership and management and would still be open to the public. The National Guard intends to use it for additional training exercises, according to Camp Grayling’s Commander Col. Scott Meyers.

This isn’t the first time the National Guard approached the DNR about an expansion to Camp Grayling. In 2014, the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs requested up to 54,000 acres near the existing Camp Grayling before local environmentalist groups and homeowners’ associations pushed back on the proposal.

Now that the National Guard wants more than triple of what was proposed in 2014, concerns among local organizers have resurfaced.

“The people in the immediate vicinity of Camp Grayling must have the biggest voice in this decision followed by people in the greater Grayling community,” said Thomas Buhr, a local historian who has served on multiple local conservationist boards.

A meeting was held Tuesday at Grayling Township Hall that had Meyers and other representatives from Camp Grayling, plus DNR representatives, present a draft map of the proposed land acquisition.

Neil Wallace, chairman of the Au Sable North Branch Area Foundation said he’s worried about the military using the land for “kinetic training” which often involves firing guns or setting off bombs — something the North Branch locals are all too familiar with.

“They talk about their windows rattling and the foundations (of their houses),” Wallace said. “It can sound like you're under siege at times.”

Meyers said the land would not be used for this kind of training. Instead, the land would help emphasize cyber warfare training — things like radio jamming and computer coding.

“Think wheeled vehicles with an antenna array to do some new types of training,” Meyers said.

Meyers said cyber training requires additional space so that there isn’t any interference between groups of soldiers performing a training exercise.

However, the draft map identifies multiple proposed firing ranges. Wallace said he will need more clarification on what the military exercises could mean for nearby homeowners.

“The other concern is their radio jamming practice could affect civilian communications like phones, internet, that sort of thing,” Wallace said.

The new land also puts Camp Grayling closer to the Au Sable River — designated a blue-ribbon trout stream by the DNR. According to the Au Sable North Branch Area Foundation, fisherman from all over the Midwest venture to the “holy water” to catch trout.

Last year, a sizable plume of PFAS chemicals was traced back to Camp Grayling — one of the first detected in Michigan. PFAS — an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — is an emerging contaminant that has been linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals.

Ever since, groups like the Anglers of the Au Sable have been more cautious about potential harms to the river.

President of the Anglers of the Au Sable Joe Hemming said it will be important for the National Guard to keep its distance from the sensitive river corridor and wetlands.

“What kind of traffic are we going to have in these areas? Will there be large military vehicles? I’m concerned about stream bed — cave-ins or erosion. Is it going to harm the shoreline vegetation? Are there going to be alterations of the natural habitat?” Hemming asked.

The latest data released by the Defense Department show Camp Grayling Army Airfield was found to have 119 ppt of PFAS.

At the meeting, Hemming and his group requested Camp Grayling and the DNR develop a more detailed map that can identify areas of concern along the river. The new map is expected to be complete by June 9.

DNR unit Manager Tom Barnes said the new maps will remove some of the training grounds away from the riverbanks by about 1,500 feet.

“The biggest concern at the meeting was about the river so that’s what we’re working on,” Barnes said. “This is still very much the review stage. There hasn’t been a decision made. We still have to review every parcel of land that are part of the lease.”

Meyers said he’s optimistic about having a final decision by the fall however, river stakeholders say there is still plenty of learning, cooperation and public input needed before they can support the expansion.

“I don't think any of our groups are ever going to be satisfied with what they proposed,” President of the Mason-Griffith Founders Trout Unlimited Chapter Karen Harrison said. “I think there has to be some major compromises.”

Barnes said there will be another meeting with river stakeholders after the revised map is completed by June 9. Another public meeting on the expansion is set for 6 p.m. on June 22 at Kirtland Community College.

Mike Livingston is a Report for America corps member and Mackinac Straits Bureau reporter covering rural life in northern Michigan. Reach him at michael.livingston@interlochen.org 

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Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.