From the Office of the Director

Marty Holtgren PHD
Executive Director
Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

In “The Muskegon: The Majesty and Tragedy of Michigan’s Rarest River”, author Jeff Alexander introduces Martin Ryerson who would eventually attain prominence in the region. In 1832, the adventurous lad left his home in New Jersey at the age of 16 and arrived two years later on the banks of the Muskegon River.

No record exists of Martin’s reaction as he explored the watershed, probably unaware he would be one of the very last people to experience the Muskegon River before it would change in ways almost unconceivable.   At the time, it was a powerful river flowing without obstruction for over 200 miles, protected by vast acreage of virgin white pine forests with trees 5 feet across at the base and often 200 feet tall.  By any measure, the Muskegon River basin in the early nineteenth century was an ecological marvel that had been 14,000 years in the making since the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes receded.The first people of the area, the Native Americans, had lived harmoniously with the river with little human alteration to the physical function.

All that changed soon after Martin Ryerson’s visit.  Historians have thoroughly documented events of the next 50 years as unregulated logging devastated the native forests.  Indeed, the raw numbers are staggering.  By the last major log run in 1905 sawmill owners had floated over 8 billion board feet of lumber down the Muskegon River. Damage to the riverbed and banks was severe; additionally loss of the forest acreage had widespread impact on the river and the local environment that is still apparent today.

Sawmills in Muskegon and Newaygo were powered by hydroelectric dams. As the mills were running out of lumber, operators repurposed the dams to provide electricity for growing communities. On the main stem of the river, utility companies constructed larger dams to meet the need for more electric power.   Private landowners built over 100 smaller and largely recreational dams on tributaries throughout the watershed. All of them obstruct the natural flow of the streams, warm water temperatures, block migratory routes of animals, and have a negative impact on the health of the entire watershed.

These problems may seem insurmountable and in fact, the solutions are not easy or fast.  The damage done over a 50-year period will take decades to address.  In the past twenty years, we have shown we can make measurable progress. Our general approach is to maintain a narrow focus on the most obvious and immediate solutions:  dam removal and reforestation.

Reforestation projects are ongoing since there is much to do in this area. The MRWA and our partners have planted tens of thousands of trees in the watershed.  In 2020, we will undertake the most ambitious tree planting effort in our history.

Dam removal is a more complicated issue but we continue to make progress and there are some promising new developments in this area as well.  You can find information on the current status of our efforts in the articles that follow.