The Pine River is one of the fastest flowing rivers in Lower Michigan and one of the most popular. Heavy traffic in the summer has created a problem the U.S. Forest Service wants to fix.
The project would mean the end of a sandy bank, about 160 feet high, that attracts crowds of paddlers. It’s an issue that pits peoples’ enjoyment of the river against the river’s health and even public safety.
The bank is just above Low Bridge, about 20 miles east of Manistee. It’s almost almost pure sand from top to bottom.
Jim Thompson, a district ranger in the Huron-Manistee National Forest, says it has a few names, like “canoe slide” and “the party spot.” He says on weekends in the summer, you can find more than 100 people pulled over here.
“It’s a slower spot in the river so it’s a good place to stop,” he says. “They raft up their canoes and it’s a nice place to stop and play around on the sand hill.”
Plants don’t grow where people play, especially where it’s sandy. So there’s nothing to stop sand from washing off the bank and into the river.
Sand erosion can be a problem in a trout stream like the Pine. For example, it covers rocks that would otherwise be used by fish to spawn.
The other problem is people slide their canoes down the sand hill. Some of them are drunk when they do it and in 2012 a man died when he flew out of his boat.
Thompson says that was a tragic accident but there are plenty of less severe incidents every summer.
“I’m not talking little scratches but fairly serious injuries,” he says.
For these reasons, the Forest Service has proposed using a helicopter to fly in as many as 100 trees. These would stabilize the bank, along with some filter cloth, so plants could grow.
Mark Miltner thinks it’s a bad idea.
“It’s neither serving the people that they’re charged with serving nor is it serving the resource,” he says.
Miltner owns Pine River Paddlesports Center and rents canoes and kayaks.
He says sand is a natural part of the river and it’s also natural for riverbanks to erode. He says because of all the restoration work on the Pine, this is one of the few sandy bends left on the river that offers paddlers a place to play.
He says the view from the top, 160 feet above the water, is one of the most spectacular in the river valley and it's views like that that inspire people to want to protect wild and scenic places.
Miltner suggests the Forest Service ask all the people who stop at the bank or climb up it whether they want the sand eliminated.
“They’d all say they want it left alone,” he says. “So I’m going to suggest that’s how you serve the people, you just leave it alone.”
District Ranger Jim Thompson says the hill would not be closed. It would just be less inviting if it was covered with trees and plants.
He says it is true riverbanks erode, but he says they usually heal, in time. This one has expanded.
“It just hasn’t had the opportunity to heal or start revegetating,” says Thompson, “just because of the continual use.”
The Forest Service is taking public comment about the proposal this month. If they go ahead, the work on Pine River would be done in 2017.