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DNR says Camp Grayling proposal may shrink, but opposition still grows

The entrance to Camp Grayling’s main compound off of Military Road in Crawford County, Aug. 12.
Michael Livingston
The entrance to Camp Grayling’s main compound off of Military Road in Crawford County, Aug. 12.

For months, there has been a dispute over a proposed expansion to Camp Grayling that would more than double the size of the largest National Guard training facility in the country.

The Michigan National Guard announced its proposal to lease 162,000 acres of state land in north-central Michigan last year. The Guard previously told IPR News the land would be used for low-impact cyber and electromagnetic warfare training that require long distances.

In the several months since that announcement, hundreds of nearby residents have expressed concernfor how the expansion would affect the environment and local economy.

Now, state officials say the acreage requested could reduce significantly. It comes not long after a state environmental official called on Michigan's Department of Natural Resources to nix the proposal entirely.

An official calls for rejecting the plan

Long-standing distrust for the guard’s activities has prompted the opposition to the expansion plans.

Most recently, Randall Rothe, a supervisor in the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, wrote that the DNR should reject the expansion of Camp Grayling based on the Guard’s “inability to take timely action to investigate, mitigate, and remediate significant areas of contamination at Camp Grayling.”

He’s talking about the history of PFAS contamination that was traced back to the training facility since a plume of the dangerous chemicals was discovered in 2016.

Rothe’s Dec. 22 letter to Bonnie Packer, the acting PFAS program manager for the Army National Guard’s Cleanup and Restoration Branch, questioned the Guard’s commitment to addressing the problem.

Many residents of Lake Margarethe, where much of the PFAS were discovered, still use separate taps for drinking water.

Rothe was the first state official to publicly speak out against the expansion.

In a statement to Bridge Michigan, EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid said that while the agency has “significant concerns” about the Guard’s PFAS response at Camp Grayling, Rothe’s letter does not represent EGLE’s formal agency stance on the expansion.

“Michigan EGLE has no regulatory authority over the proposed expansion and will not make a formal agency recommendation on that matter,” McDiarmid said.

Land ask likely to decrease

DNR Director Shannon Lott is the one with final say on the proposal. Lott took over the position from former director Dan Eichinger with the new year.

At a quarterly meeting earlier this month, Lott told the Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) that a preliminary review of the proposal found that the acreage should be reduced.

But DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the size and scope of this reduction would depend on the outcome of a formal DNR review of the proposed lease expansion area. That formal review hasn’t happened yet.

“We continue to evaluate the proposal. I’m hopeful we can provide additional information to the public soon,” Golder said.

MUCC was the first conservation organization to announce opposition to the expansion. Other outdoor organizations like the Sierra Club, Michigan Trout Unlimited and Anglers of the Au Sable have also declared opposition.

“For conservationists, it’s important that our public, state-owned lands remain protected, open and used for the purposes intended — hunting, fishing, trapping and recreating,” said Amy Trotter, MUCC executive director. “Hundreds of concerned residents in the area, hunters, anglers and conservationists spoke out against this expansion at dozens of public meetings.”

Many area residents believe the Guard shouldn’t acquire a single acre.

Opposition still grows

Along with members of the conservation community, local governments on the township and county level continue to voice strong opinions.

As of Jan. 26, over 30 townships and county boards within the proposed expansion zone have passed resolutions, submitted letters to the state or spoken out in opposition to the expansion.

Bear Lake Township Supervisor Jim Knight is one of the residents urging more government bodies to take a stance.

“I feel that we're at a turning point for the history of northern Michigan,” Knight said. “Right now, it’s Pure Michigan. Do we want to be purely militarized? Will that bring tourism here?”

Michigan National Guard leadership previously stated the exercises would have minimal impact on the land or residents. The land would remain in DNR ownership and management. And DNR officials have told IPR News the land would still be open to the public.

When asked his stance on the proposal, U.S. Senator Gary Peters said he’s still exploring it. It’s a state issue that Peters won’t have official jurisdiction over, but the Democratic senator is a veteran and chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

“The future of warfare will change considerably from what we see here today. Things that I'm working on regarding artificial intelligence, electronic warfare and cyber is really the future for warfare,” Peters said. “You need a lot larger areas to exercise those capabilities. My understanding is that all the recreational activities that are allowed on that land will continue to be allowed.”

To learn more, listen to an in-depth episode of the Points North podcastabout the proposed expansion to Camp Grayling.

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