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Nature vs. National Security

Michael Livingston / IPR
Left) Paddlers on the Au Sable River near Grayling, Michigan. Right) The 134th Field Artillery Regiment from Ohio National Guard practices an emergency fire mission in a field Northeast of Camp Grayling's main compound on Aug. 12.

Central northern Michigan is the perfect place to be outside with its pristine rivers and vast undeveloped forests.

The irony is, it’s also the perfect place to train a U.S. soldier.

The Michigan National Guard announced in May that it wants to more than double the footprint of Camp Grayling, the largest National Guard training facility in the country. The Guard has said it's in the name of national security ― to better equip soldiers with the skills to defend against things like cyber warfare.

Many residents, however, are furiously pushing back against the proposal. They worry the expansion will threaten their link to the outdoors ― the land they love.

Producer: Michael Livingston
Editor: Morgan Springer
Host / Additional Editing: Dan Wanschura
Music: Magnus Moone, Hans Troost and Samuel Peter Davis

DANIEL WANSCHURA, HOST: In the heart of northern Michigan ― there’s this place with endless, endless forests. It’s mostly public land. Trout-filled rivers. Long, winding two-tracks and trails. When you’re driving along, it's hard to even know where the closest house or gas station is. It almost feels like an elven forest out of Lord of the Rings.

All these things ― they’re exactly why many people live here.

KEVIN KRAUSE: You hunt, you fish, you hike, you swim, you cross country ski.

LACEY STEPHAN: We have the Au Sable River, the Manistee River…world famous for fly fishing.

PETER HOUCK: You come up here and you're totally isolated, more relaxed.

DEBBIE LIGHT: It’s just total calmness here.

Michael Livingston
An ORV trailhead runs through Frederick Township in Kalkaska County Aug. 17.

WANSCHURA: Those are residents Kevin Krause, Lacey Stephan, Peter Houck and Debbie Light.

Now the irony is ― all the things that make this place ideal for these people ― they also make it ideal to train a U.S. soldier. The perfect spot to learn how to strategically use artillery or fight in a cyber war. And because of that, these two groups ― the residents and the Michigan National Guard are now going head to head.

This is Points North, a show about the land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Dan Wanschura.

Some residents in northern Michigan are in conflict with the military over Camp Grayling ― the largest National Guard training facility in the country. Now, the Guard wants to lease about 250 square miles of public land in the name of national security. It would more than double the size of the training grounds. But many residents say they distrust the Guard and think the expansion will threaten their way of life.

Today’s episode, Nature vs. National Security.

There’s a meeting to talk about the expansion in Bear Lake Township Hall. It’s the evening of July 7th. And reporter Michael Livingston is there.

MICHAEL LIVINGSTON, BY-LINE: I’m here with about 100 other people in this tiny hall.

It’s super humid with no AC ― just a couple doors propped open, a few ceiling fans going. And the room is really tense. Resident Monty Bolis has already made up his mind about the expansion.

MONTY BOLIS: I could talk here for an hour…but I won’t.

(Audience interrupts)

AUDIENCE: Let him talk!

BOLIS: There are questions in here! There are questions! But my questions are to the good people sitting in this room rather than the gentlemen up front. Do you understand that your home values and your property values are probably going to go down? They’re going to go down for this reason.

LIVINGSTON: Property values are just part of the concern. Many residents worry the expansion will take away access to land they love.

BOLIS: These things start gaining momentum, and gaining momentum, and gaining momentum. And pretty soon it doesn't matter what a wildlife biologist says, or what a fisheries biologist says.

AUDIENCE: Or what we say!

BOLIS: Or what we say.

LIVINGSTON: It’s not that people are against the military around here. Camp Grayling has been a part of the community for over 100 years. People take pride in it. Many of them are veterans or know someone who serves.

Here’s how Lacey Stephan sees it. He’s the township supervisor of the town of Grayling.

STEPHAN: Camp Grayling does not define Grayling. They are a part of Grayling.

LIVINGSTON: But, if the military starts training on more land, many residents ― like Jim Knight ― worry the region could lose its main attractions.

JIM KNIGHT: What's at stake, is what we came here for, and worked our whole lives for, to be here ― and to have this peace and quiet. It's like a gun range moving into somebody's place ― they're the new neighbor, there's a gun range now next to you.

Over 200 people from Grayling and the surrounding area gather for a public comment meeting with the Michigan National Guard and the DNR June 22 at Kirtland Community College.

LIVINGSTON: So, to get a better idea of why the guard wants to lease the land, we have to go to Camp Grayling. Right now it’s Northern Strike, a semi-annual training that’s one of the largest in the Midwest.

It’s not just the National Guard here today. Thousands of participants from 19 states and several allied countries are here too. Military vehicles are driving up and down the back roads, helicopters fly overhead all day long. In this maneuver a group of soldiers shoot off some heavy artillery in a field northeast of Grayling. They’re preparing for an emergency fire mission.

(Artillery fires)

Michael Livingston
Sign warns residents and visitors of ongoing training exercises during Northern Strike on Aug. 12.

LIVINGSTON: Col. Scott Meyers is the garrison commander of Camp Grayling. He looks how you’d expect a military guy to look. Short hair. Square face. He wears his green, camo uniform and uses a lot of hand gestures when he talks.

Meyers says the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs wants Camp Grayling to be a go-to spot for training state, national and international troops.

The Guard needs the public land to make that happen, he says.

MEYERS: Picture tents with camo netting over the tops of them…troops walking through the woods just like, you know, a nature walk but carrying weapons, wearing camouflage uniforms, driving their vehicles to the next location and a couple days later and doing it again. Not expanding any tank trails, not expanding any of those things, I have plenty of space for those.

LIVINGSTON: What he does need space for is certain cyber-warfare exercises he says the Guard cannot do on the current Camp Grayling footprint. things like open-air jamming of radar and GPS systems.

This is what the military uses to mess with enemy communications. And if they’re too close to the current footprint, they could mess up their own communications.

Unlike the Northern Strike exercises today,

(Sound of artillery)

the military would not be able to fire off any live rounds or explosives.

The expansion agreement says the DNR would still own the land. And residents can continue to use it most of the time. The Guard would have to get approval from the state before holding training exercises, including during prime hunting season.

He says if the troops are doing these exercises correctly, oftentimes residents won’t even know they’re there.

Col. Meyers says the expansion is a matter of national security.

MEYERS: You know, years ago, I received a quote, ‘the blood of an untrained soldier forever stains their leaders’ hands.’ Meaning that if we're not prepared, if we're not preparing those soldiers for those conditions they could potentially face - as a community, we're to blame. And so yes, we believe it is urgent.

LIVINGSTON: What happens if this doesn’t happen? What happens if the lease is not approved? What kind of problems could that cause down the line?

MEYERS: Congress specifically asked that to the Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Air Force ― to identify training locations that can train in multi-domain operations, simultaneously, in a four season environment.

LIVINGSTON: By multi-domain he means trainings that happen on land, in the air and water, space and cyberspace.

MEYERS: I can't picture very many places in the continental United States that can get after that, I think we're very unique with that ability. And so, clearly, if we don't have the right spaces to do those activities, in my opinion, lives will be at risk.

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

LIVINGSTON: Many residents are not convinced ― including Jim Knight.

KNIGHT: At this point, Meyers can say anything, and I don't really think I can believe anything he says right now.

LIVINGSTON: And Knight’s not alone in thinking that. Many people are suspicious when they hear the guard’s talking points. And there have been some inconsistencies.

Here’s one example, Meyers said at one public meeting that noise wouldn’t increase, but at a different meeting he said troops would sometimes fire off blank rounds and fly drones.

Another thing people are concerned about, they’re worried the Guard will allow military contractors to test things like weapons on the land. Meyers initially said that wouldn’t happen. But he told 9&10 News that he doesn’t plan to have contractors on, but he wouldn’t rule it out. When I asked him, he went back on that a bit.

MEYERS: But as far as more of that research development, that experimentation, yeah we're not. They don't have any interest in those spaces for it.

LIVINGSTON: This one isn’t an inconsistency, but people didn’t like it. The Guard says they wouldn’t go within 1,500 feet of any water bodies if they get the lease. Then recently troops were spotted paddling with weapons down the Manistee River during training. Something they’ve done legally for years. But some residents were up in arms about that. They started to distrust the Guard even more.

Soldiers are spotted paddling down the Manistee River in a non-training area on Aug. 7. Photo taken by Bear Lake Township resident Gary Vetter.

Gene DesJardins lives in the area.

GENE DESJARDINS: If me and you have an agreement, and I'm going to do something, and you agree to it, and then I start changing it. That's not good. So, I get alarmed when people change stuff, when people make different comments that we are supposed to rely on as fact.

LIVINGSTON: To understand how ingrained this distrust is, we have to go back in time.

The Guard has tried to expand a handful of times, most recently in 2014. But it was squashed by conservation groups who said the Guard wasn’t being transparent.

But the big moment came when toxic chemicals called PFAs were found in a nearby lake in 2019. Lake Margrethe.

Jackie Krause is still dealing with the consequences at her house on the lakeshore. Her son Kevin Krause is there too. We’re standing in the kitchen. The only place you can drink the water is at this sink. Underneath is a filter system.

KEVIN KRAUSE: And they’re filled with activated charcoal. Basically it’s a glorified Brita water filter is what it is.

Michael Livingston
The smaller of these two faucets, in Jackie Krause's kitchen, is the only place in the house where she can get clean drinking water. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR)

LIVINGSTON: PFAS have been linked to harmful health effects. They’re called 'the forever chemical’ because they hardly break down. It got into Lake Margrethe after the National Guard used firefighting foam at their nearby airbase.

The Guard hasn’t been able to clean it up, but they’re trying to figure out how to deal with it. And right now they’re doing things like replacing filters and testing the water. The Krauses say it’s too little, too late.

JACKIE KRAUSE: I just wonder, is it ever going to clean up out on this lake? Is this going to be there forever?

KEVIN KRAUSE: Not in your lifetime, mom. I guarantee it. It's just not. It’s just not.

LIVINGSTON: After what happened with the PFAs, they totally understand why people don’t want to give more land to Camp Grayling.

KEVIN KRAUSE: The military, in this piece the National Guard, is a tenant, and she's the landlord. And the tenant went into the house, they kicked holes in the walls. And then they say ‘I want another lease and two more houses.’ Your first response should be, ‘How’s about you patch the holes in the wall of the house you just got done renting first?’

LIVINGSTON: So, for now, residents are waiting for answers. The state’s Department of Natural Resources will make the final decision. I reached out to the department director for this story, but he declined to be interviewed. He says he’ll make a decision later this summer based on the Guard’s proposal, environmental impacts, and how the public feels.

Many residents, like Gene DesJardins, worry the state won’t understand the mass disapproval.

DESJARDINS: Don't we, the people have a choice? Why is there no vote. And if they're taking the temperature of the people...they've lost.

LIVINGSTON: Debbie Light has property right next to the land the guard wants to start using. It’s tucked away in the forest, down miles of dirt roads. Light calls this place her serenity, an escape from busy life downstate. It’s where she grew up and where she wants to spend the rest of her life.

LIGHT: As soon as you get here your energy just drops. It's more peace. You don't have that anxiety and that anger. It's just total calmness here.

LIVINGSTON: But it’s not always that way. Remember those training exercises from earlier? This is what it sounded like from a distance ― approximately the same distance as Light’s property.

(Artillery impact in the distance)

LIVINGSTON: She says this destroys her serenity.

LIGHT: I have bought military men their dinner, their lunch, because I know they work. They work hard. They're up here training, doing what they have to do to keep us safe, period, to keep us safe. This stuff that they're doing has nothing to do with keeping us safe. Nothing.

LIVINGSTON: At least she says the National Guard hasn’t proved that to her yet. If the expansion is approved, she says she’ll probably stop coming Up North as often. In the meantime, residents say they’ll keep fighting to protect the land they love, and the military says they’ll keep fighting to protect us all.

Michael Livingston / IPR
Debbie Light relaxes with her dog Lexi on her family’s property off Portage Creek Road, Aug. 16

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