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Grayling stakeholders mixed on camp expansion after week of public comment

Over 200 people from Grayling and the surrounding area gather for a public comment meeting with the Michigan National Guard and the DNR Wednesday night at Kirtland Community College.
Michael Livingston
Interlochen Public Radio
Over 200 people from Grayling and the surrounding area gather for a public comment meeting with the Michigan National Guard and the DNR Wednesday night at Kirtland Community College.

Public comment for a proposed expansion of Camp Grayling continued this week with lengthy meetings between the Michigan National Guard, the Department of Natural Resources and stakeholders from Grayling and the surrounding area.

They were the first of many steps in the DNR’s review process for a 20-year lease of about 162,000 acres that could go to the guard.

Tom Barnes, of the DNR, said the proposal is likely to scale down in the coming months as the state takes out land around waterbodies as well as campgrounds and protected ecosystems.

“This is step two of what feels like 1,000,” Barnes said at a Wednesday meeting.

Some left the meetings feeling better about the proposal. Many others still worry about the potential impacts the expansion would have on infrastructure, the environment, and access to the public land.

Meeting with Au Sable River Stakeholders

About a dozen members of various Au Sable conservation groups showed up to Camp Grayling Monday with a long list of questions.

When the Michigan National Guard announced its intention to expand in early May, many of these groups had immediate concerns about the health of the ecosystem. The meeting was set up to address those concerns.

Heading the table was Col. Scott Meyers, the garrison commander of Camp Grayling, along with Barnes from the DNR.

Joe Hemming, president of the Anglers of the Au Sable, started the discussion by asking about the timeline of the process and the need for additional land in the first place.

The group was told the expansion will likely be smaller than originally proposed. The land would be leased from the state forest by the National Guard.

Barnes said some property that was acquired by the Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund has already been removed from the proposal — and more is likely to follow.

A 1,500-foot buffer was also placed around all water bodies at stakeholders' request, which could fluctuate. Barnes said campgrounds and parcels that do not allow leasing will also be removed.

“So probably when we go through the review process, we will redo the boundary,” Barnes said.

Meyers said the land would be used for year-round cyber, electronic and space warfare training. He said that’s things like radio jamming, geofencing and computer hacking.

The management agreement between the guard and the DNR states the military cannot use firearms and explosives or build structures on the land without permission.

“We’re specifically focused on the low impact,” Meyers said. “How can we sustain recreational activity that we enjoy while still getting after those training challenges?"

A draft map of the expansion showed multiple proposed firing ranges, but Meyers said they were removed in an updated version.

Neil Wallace, of the Au Sable North Branch Area Foundation, wanted more details. He cited the declining trout population in the Au Sable River and worries what “another variable” would introduce.

“I'm concerned we don't know enough about what the effects would be on the resource on the river — on organisms and the people,” Wallace said.

Meyers said analysis from the state and federal government could predict if there would be harmful impacts coming from the training exercises.

Inspection is one of many steps in the process. After that, the DNR and Department of Military and Veteran Affairs will revisit lease limits for each area of expansion.

Hemming suggested lease agreements be reduced from 20 years to five to give Camp Grayling an opportunity to rebuild trust with the community.

“I don't see why they couldn't do a five-year lease,” Hemming said. “With that shorter period of time, I think you're going to get the National Guard on their best behavior.”

In 2019, a plume of PFAS chemicals was traced back to Camp Grayling — one of the first detected in Michigan. Ever since, the environmentalists around the table have been more cautious about potential harms to the river.

Wallace said he left feeling more optimistic about working with the Guard and DNR but remains unconvinced that additional land is necessary.

“There's a lot of distrust, and it comes from the PFAS and all of that,” Wallace said. “So, even when they say what they say — not everybody believes them."

Public meeting with residents

Two days later, more than 200 people filled a room at Kirtland Community College. Among them were homeowners, hunters, conservationists and more.

The audience submitted dozens of questions before the meeting that were read by a facilitator. Barnes and Meyers sat on the panel along with DNR Natural Resources Deputy Shannon Lott and Jonathan Edgerly, the environmental manager at Camp Grayling.

The group rehashed much of what was said at the Monday meeting in a presentation before taking questions from community members.

Some of the questions asked:

• Why does just one person, the DNR Director, have the final say?

“When it comes to land transactions, land leases, land-use event permanence, all of those permitting things that happen on state land — those are a director authority item — that's outlined in statute,” Lott said.

Lott confirmed residents will not vote on the final proposal but several public comment opportunities will be scheduled.

• What’s the potential for further PFAS contamination? How will you mitigate the risks?

Edgerly pointed audience members to several resources including the Kirtland Community College website and a restoration advisory board that will meet next on July 13.

Meyers confirmed the military is not using “firefighting foam” that was linked to the 2019 contamination.

• Will reports from incoming environmental impact studies be public records? Will the proposed expansion be the only thing included in the studies?

“Yes, that is a public document and I’m more than happy to share that with anybody that's interested,” Barnes said “Will the proposed expansion be the only thing included in this new environmental analysis? Yes. Because that is different from what's already been analyzed and documented.”

• How will the expansion impact property values?

“I think your value of your home is pretty high probably right now,” Meyers said. “I can't imagine that it would decrease based on us working out those areas.”

At the end of the meeting, one audience member asked people to raise their hands if they were still opposed to the project. Many raised their hands but most stayed down.

Mike Petrucha is on the Kirtland’s warbler conservation team — which is dedicated to protecting the federally endangered bird native to Northern Michigan.

Part of the DNR’s incoming review process includes a survey of Kirtland’s warbler habitats to identify any potential risks from the expansion. Petrucha said he feels better knowing there’s some attention being paid to endangered species.

“There are still some questions I have, but it sounds like they’re doing all the right things. There are people on this that are aware of the wildlife and its needs and the affect (the expansion) would have on it,” he said.

Despite some reassurance, residents like John Thompson remained deeply concerned with the proposal. He lives on the edge of Bear Lake Township which he described as “ground zero” for the expansion.

He said he’s still worried about the noise, declining property values and Camp Grayling’s history with contamination.

“I want the best for our boys — those troops are somebody's sons,” he said. “But I don't want this in my backyard.”

Public comment for the expansion is open until July 8. After the state and federal review process the agreement will be up for public comment again.

Barnes said he expects the process to be completed by the end of 2023.

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