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With no laws for excessive drinking on rivers, recreation debate heats up

Kaye LaFond
Interlochen Public Radio


If you’re upset about drunken crowds on northern Michigan rivers in the summer, don’t expect change anytime soon.

This week, the U.S. Forest Service said it will not prohibit alcohol on the Au Sable, Pine and Manistee rivers this year. 

And at a forum about the Boardman River Wednesday, a Michigan DNR officer said they can’t arrest people for being drunk and disorderly on the water.

Giving up on an alcohol ban

In the end, the Forest Service didn’t want to fight the public. So it’s continuing an education plan they started last year in lieu of the ban. More recreation officials will be at river launch sites and there will be signs asking people not to litter.

They say a future alcohol prohibition isn’t off the table, but they have no plans to pursue it.

In the meantime, it’s not clear the education plan doesn’t appear to be working. A few members of the community working group say the increased Forest Service presence helped. However, several river users last summer reported they didn’t notice extra officers. The Forest Service and the community group agree there were still too many alcohol issues on the rivers.

It’s also unclear if the Forest Service can continue the program long term. Last summer it moved a lot of their recreation officers that monitor camping sites and forests over to the rivers. But they can’t continue doing that so this year they’re trying to hire more interns to do the job instead.

Issues on the Boardman

Interlochen Public Radio hosted a forum Wednesday evening about river recreation concerns on the Boardman River. More than 120 people showed up, including a lot of paddlers, anglers and property owners. 

The big complaint again was alcohol. Land owners off the river were upset about groups of intoxicated kayakers from paddling brew crawls changing the experience of being on the river. Others had littering concerns.

To their chagrin, Michigan DNR conservation officer Joe Molnar said law enforcement can’t do anything about drunk people behaving badly on the river. He said people can only be ticketed if they threaten someone. 

In general, there were a lot of questions about what could be done to regulate the river. Some people hoped the city might be able to limit the total number of people using the river, to manage the crowds of people on the weekends. But, Molnar said that would be tricky legally.

“To try to stretch it out and say that only a certain number of users can use a stretch of river, that’s difficult,” he said. “That would be like saying only a certain number of vehicles could drive on a highway.”

Another DNR representative, Patrick Ertel, said he thinks it would be hard to find common ground.

“There is no right answer,” he says. “The answer is the balance that everyone can accept.”

And even if they did find a number, the DNR likely wouldn’t have the manpower to enforce the rule.

“You all witnessed me learn that there’s commercial activity in the natural rivers district that is regulated,” Ertel says. “So if we can’t prop up and adhere to the existing plans what’s a new one going to do?”

He says the path forward may be for river users to follow river etiquette.

“And I think if someone passes while you’re casting… it’s etiquette to ask. Take a little bit of ownership in educating our peers.”


Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.