From the Desk of the Director Jan 2023- The Last Threat

Scott Faulkner
Executive Director Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

I love a good story- and I truly enjoy knocking on watershed doors and seeking out the people who live, work, and sometimes find the life of their dreams on the Muskegon and its tributaries.  Aleks Krotoski posits, “Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals, and moral compasses.”  I believe that the Muskegon is itself a story that really has no beginning or end: we choose a moment of experience from which to look back, or from which to look ahead. From where I sit, I believe now is a very good time to look ahead.

During my first couple of years at MRWA, I have sought stories from tribal members whose ancestors were first to call Muskegon home, as well as fifth generation farmers and fishing guide families whose lineage extend back long before electricity or the hydros.  I have spent hours in conversation on porches on our dam impoundment areas, in homes that could be charming 100+-year-old fish camps or luxury lakefront estates.  Every person on the Muskegon has a story to tell.

Many of these river stories include an increasingly nervous observation of a changing watershed, which has literally always been the case. Some stories extend back to before the times of French trapping. Then there are stories of runaway logging, building of dams, stories of caustic industrial contamination, and ending with today’s exponential population sprawl. Each of these eras greatly challenged the Muskegon and disrupted, threatened, and at times dislocated the inhabitants of that era, for species great and small.   Many stories of today, particularly those coming from the impoundments, are starting to include an unlikely and strangely ironic new threat, if you will- the threat of restoration of the Muskegon: The last threat.

Our partners, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, have taught me that most names in Anishinaabemowin speak to the spirit of those beings, their purpose, and their abilities. Each name holds its own story as an interwoven part of the narrative of existence: “Skywoman fell from Skyworld onto the feathery backs of geese, brought gently to earth and onto the back of a great turtle- where a heroic, deep-diving muskrat sacrificed its life to create the land needed by her.  Skywoman danced out of gratitude for the gifts from the muskrat and all of her animal family, and the seeds she brought down from Skyworld produced wild grasses, flowers, trees, and medicines of all kinds- enough to feed everyone- the Creation.” Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD., excerpted from Braiding Sweetgrass.

Imagine the horror of the watershed’s earliest inhabitants as they watched their land and water first stripped not only of its sacred muskrat, beaver, otter, and mink- but again as their tree relatives were mass murdered and floated down to the mills.  Soon after, the fish and Manoomin upon which they depended were no longer able to swim or reproduce on 219 miles of river and thousands of acres of wetlands they had called home for thousands of years.  The Anishinaabe blue trail and the sturgeon’s artery – the Muskegon- was then tamed for electrification, her circulatory system severed by the hydro projects.  Anishinaabe’s purposeful, connected, and often difficult way of life along the Muskegon was changed forever, after having been fed by it physically and spiritually for millennia.

There is another old story I was privileged to hear from a sixth-generation family, whose business thrives south of Big Rapids and north of Croton.  They shared with me their original brochures from the 1910’s and the Roaring 20’s, complete with pictures of Chicago businessmen in suits and ties and fishing for the mighty sturgeon in the wild, untamed Muskegon.  The river’s sturgeon also “fed,” or provided for this Newaygo family for 125 years.

In those days, the earliest production automobiles were still a luxury item and generally used for pleasure, rather than business, but they were becoming increasingly popular with daily travelers.  That included a predictable list of doctors, attorneys, industrialists, and architects- the kind that liked the idea of thrill fishing just 10-12 hours from the Windy City and 7-8 hours from Detroit in the early motoring era.  And come they did, by the tens of thousands.

This family thrived for a season on the “Big Rapids” and the recently naked banks of Muskegon. Imagine their outrage to learn that a series of massive hydroelectric dams were about to fully end their way of life and their thriving business. Here were five generations whose lives were upended by the ‘progress’ of the time.

Displacement is often called the enforced departure of people from their homes, often because of war, persecution, or natural disaster. This time, the same forces that allowed trappers and loggers to displace entire communities through extracting “natural resources,” was hydro. The US and State government again legally exploited the river and its inhabitants for private business opportunities.

And so, the history goes. Each era introduced new technologies, which in turn displaced adjacent cultures and their families.

A more recent group- let’s call them The Pond People – those of us who adore our quasi-lakefront living on Croton, Hardy, and Rogers Ponds, also see our future, culture, and our recent substantial increase in fortunes as permanently attached to our river and our impoundments as they exist today.   Read, exactly, as they exist today.

My family lives on Croton Pond, where our daughter learned to swim, where summer fireworks still paint the sky, where a stubborn willow, bending and adapting, refuses to breathe its last breath, where the morning and evening views routinely take our breath away, nourishing my family for two generations now. Like many of our neighbors, our property values have tripled- at least according to the tax assessor- since we bought our property.   I know this more recent group- because I am them.

And now, The Pond People’s way of life is being challenged by the end of the lifecycle of hydro technology, their formidable structures, and the original business case that created our lakefront family life as it is today.   The hydro owners say it is time to get out of the business- it is time for a plan that results in the dams being “retired”.   Their decision is rightfully based on the end of structural life expectancy, environmental degradation, public safety, and simple business calculations, and I truly understand: My background is largely business, and their hydro portfolio, once a leading-edge energy production technology, now bleeds money.  Today they also have regulatory agencies to which they must soon answer a single, very specific question: License renewal- yes or no?  And throw in another key factor: There are plenty of funding resources for dam removal- and few to keep them in place.  What would you do?

Many Pond People- in particular those on Croton and Rogers, even if we can’t say it within earshot of our neighbors, will quietly concede that they are not the “ponds” they used to be.  Increasingly silted, shallow, warmer, there are now fewer cold-water fish, more algae blooms, and out of control weeds.  Entire bayous are filling in.  Some Pond families bought waterfront properties just one or two decades ago, and they can no longer even list them for sale as such. The water is gone from dozens of docks.  So are the boats, and summer on the water is just not the same.

In several public meetings along the Muskegon in the past two years, I have asked for a show of hands: “How many here tonight believe your dam, your pond, your view, your future family experience will be much the same as it is today 100 years from now?”  Not a single hand. “How about 50 years from now?” Just a few.  “How about 20 years from now?” A weak majority.  Everyone knows the slow clock is running out on the Pond People.   On me and my family too, but this time with the courtesy of a warning- and an invitation to the table from those requiring the change- a courtesy starkly absent to the Anishinaabe and the fishing guide family mentioned earlier when their worlds were eviscerated.  At least we have been given a shot at a grown-up conversation, and I think we need to take it.

“The oak is the strongest tree in the forest, but the willow bends and adapts. When the fires and storms hit, it is the willow that survives.” – from White Stag.  This generation on the Muskegon must be the willow.  Is it possible that being at the table, designing a post-Pond future with other stakeholders might limit the long-term negative economic impact of hydro retirement? Is it possible that future generations might see great value and virtue in raising their families in a restored watershed- with thriving fish habitat, their silted ponds converted to parks and trails, with lush, native species planted throughout its banks?  I say emphatically yes- but only if we are the willow.