From the Office of the Director

Scott Faulkner, Executive Director
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

What is the state of our watershed? That was the central question put forward in MRWA’s State of the Watershed presentation, held in late March 2023 to a lively crowd just shy of a hundred area stakeholders at the Heritage Museum of Newaygo County.  As it turns out, it is a tricky question to answer without sounding either dire, or Pollyanna.  Or worse -both!

Nonetheless, MRWA Principle Watershed Scientist Marty Holtgren did a fine job of answering the question concisely and completely: Fragile, but cool!  In other words – both.  Our Muskegon today is being both restored and abused, depending on where one looks.  A quick drive along  40th Street across the top of Hardy dam will show a fine example of utterly ruined land being accepted as the collateral damage of progress, in this case, a much-needed safety upgrade to a hydro dam spillway, as well as a road widening and trail expansion.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of beautiful trees, along with 4 miles of rustic hiking trail are simply gone. Go see for yourself.

Conversely, the MRWA has begun, thoughtfully and carefully, to remove several small, crumbling tributary dams, restoring miles of fresh, cold trout stream. Additionally, the US Army Corps of Engineers is finalizing a world-class hydrological study in the Maple River area, allowing a collection of stakeholders to work in partnership to plan for the restoration of miles of discarded anabranch laid fallow by loggers over 125 years ago.  Your assembly has now planted over 3500 trees in the watershed and has provided riverine schoolkids new opportunities to learn about the promise of restoration, while providing  the hands-on field science needed to restore the Muskegon.

MRWA’s years-long partnership with the Little Band of Ottawa Indians continues to deepen and bear substantial fruit.  We are working alongside the tribe in our educational outreach, incorporating Tradition Environmental Knowledge (TEK) in curricula for students.  We share science staff for field exercises involving Manoomin (wild rice), nme (sturgeon), bank stabilization, and the value of trees.  We are engaging the tribe to help MRWA more fully expand our capacity to evaluate projects from environmental, economic, social, and sustainability perspectives.  Here’s an example just in time for spring planning, and then some spring planting.

Maple Island got its name from the abundance of Sugar Maple (Ninaatig) trees found in the area that served as a vital late-winter food source (ziinzibaakwad) for countless generations of indigenous residents. Predictably, the sugar maple forests were wiped out during the logging era, and the Anishishinaabe people were largely displaced soon after the virtually complete elimination of their food resources. The damming of the Maple River anabranch was a major blow eliminating a productive Walleye hatchery and flooding most of the wild rice crop further downriver.

“We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world. We need to restore honor to the way we live, so that when we walk through the world we don’t have to avert our eyes with shame, so that we can hold our heads up high and receive the respectful acknowledgment of the rest of the earth’s beings.” Robin Wall Kimmerer PhD, mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

MRWA works effectively with the LRBOI tribal government, local and county governments, corporate and private foundations, and private donors and members to help fund restoration projects that we can tell all our grandchildren about with pride.   Some observers of MRWA believe that there may be an arbitrary or even myopic focus now on dam removal, and that is simply not the case.   Each restoration project situation is quite different.   There are some dams that are still serving their purpose, and why would MRWA support removing them at this point when we have almost 100 in the watershed that are crumbling and cause public safety issues? In such cases, we simply move on..

One simple way to address multiple issues within the watershed is increased tree planting, as they play a critical role in bank stabilization, intercepting rainwater and reducing runoff into the river.   Your Muskegon River Watershed Assembly and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians are joining together to sponsor the planting of 1000 Sugar Maple Trees on Maple Island, and along the restored Maple River corridor in Bridgeton and Cedar Creek Townships. It’s called the 1000 Trees Promise.

What can you do?  Think about writing a check for a sugar maple tree sponsorship for $99.00.    For each sponsorship – a young sugar maple will be planted, and the sponsor will receive a small jug of pure Michigan maple syrup.    The net proceeds will be used to keep MRWA actively engaged in its efforts to restore our watershed through supporting our operations. The “1000 Trees Promise” seeks to put the trees back on Maple Island, with the hope that future generations will better understand intergenerational planning and the spiritual significance of this culturally important food source.   These trees, to be planted in 2023 and 2024, will begin to be productive around the year 2060 – far enough into the future that our grandkids might taste our efforts.   And so it is, that looking forward three or four decades can be wonderful, but at other times it poses a real, substantial, and almost insurmountable challenge.

Like the question answered in the State of the Watershed, allow me to pose a more difficult question to you, our valued members and partners, as our winter turns to spring, and we think of things to come:  Who is designing a free-flowing Muskegon River ecosystem?  After all, we have been told in no uncertain terms that Consumers Energy will be “retiring” their hydro dam “fleet”.  Like it or not, the options for these obsolete dams as outlined, point most directly to removal over the long term, and that includes the big three on the main branch: Rogers, Hardy and Croton dams.   I choose to take CE at their word and believe that they will be doing so, perhaps in our lifetime, but most certainly in my child’s lifetime.

Lately, so many of my neighbors, other impoundment residents and their respective elected leaders are quick to say “not on my watch”, and point out the very real economic and cultural impacts that may likely occur if and when these massive impoundments are drained and a free-flowing Muskegon is restored.  Their concern is well founded- no argument there.   But the question remains: Who is designing a free-flowing Muskegon River ecosystem?  As usual, with no intervention, and if we follow the money, it will likely be the owners of the dams doing the design.

From this desk, I see no honor at all in taking a “not on my watch” stance- because this is simply a transfer of this enormous challenge to the next unlucky set of elected leaders and local stakeholders.  From this desk, I believe that your Assembly is in the best position to be an honest broker that seeks to balance environmental, economic, cultural and sustainability needs, and to set the table for designing a free-flowing Muskegon future.  This critical, difficult, sacrificial, and long-range task must not fall to single local Township governments, Federal or State regulators, a utility company, or any single environmental organization. It will take a stoic, forward looking, well informed, and financially viable partnership.

Finally, from this desk, I believe that no single entity can be effective alone, nor complete in addressing systemic issues demanded by a 219-mile-long watershed.  In 2023, your Assembly will be working diligently toward this thoughtful exercise- designing a free-flowing Muskegon- and we ask for your continued financial support toward this end.  Hungry for pancakes?  I thought so…