How big can we think?

George Heartwell
Mayor Grand Rapids Michigan (Ret)
Director Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

The room was quiet, but I could sense the engagement of fifteen Board members and three staff.   The wheels were turning!

“Really!  How big can we think?  What’s the thing we could do that nobody would believe possible for a small environmental nonprofit?  The thing that might take us a decade to accomplish…but when we succeed it will change the face of the watershed for better, forever?”

Then the ideas began to flow!  Katie bar the door!

“We could open a watershed interpretive center, an educational facility that would benefit the Muskegon and every other watershed.”

“We could protect ten acres of wetland every year for ten years by ownership or conservation easement.”

“We could work with Consumers Energy to ‘reconnect’ the Muskegon River, allowing fish passage around all three hydroelectric dams.” 

“We could re-awaken a river that has been sleeping for 150 years, restoring a four and one-half mile branch of the Muskegon River.”

“We could…” 

WAIT A MINUTE!  What was that last one?

Yes, folks, 150 years ago the Maple River, a navigable side branch of the Muskegon went to sleep.  More accurately, it was put to sleep, knocked out, strangled.  Loggers discovered that this lovely little side branch was snagging logs, creating logjams, slowing the deforestation of the entire Muskegon River watershed.  This was unacceptable.  Trees are cut, logs are floated, mills turn out lumber.  Anything that gets in the way…well, you know the story!

The opening of the Maple River was filled, the logs then floated freely, and the hungry saw blades on Muskegon Lake chewed ‘em up and made them into boards.  When the trees were all cut down and the mills closed, nobody thought to reopen the poor little Maple River.

Tell me you haven’t wondered, at one time or another, as you drove down Maple Island Rd., why you only crossed the Muskegon once?  If I’m on an island there should be two bridges, right?  Otherwise, there’s no island.

Well, that’s right.  With the blockading of the Maple River, there was no longer a Maple Island.

Ah, but look closely.  The Maple is still there!  Here’s the old streambed.  Mostly dry, just a little standing run-off water.  Where walleye would spawn, where there were once acres of wild rice beds and flocks of migratory waterfowl, now there was but a remnant, a faint reminder of what was once a river, equal in flow, we believe, to the mainstem of the Muskegon.

“How big can we think?”  Big enough to bring the Maple River back to life.

Your Muskegon River Watershed Assembly has taken on the BIG project of restoring the Maple River.  We have partners:  Bridgeton Township in Newaygo County, Cedar Creek Township in Muskegon County, both County’s Emergency Services Offices (Yes, the restoration of the Maple would reduce flooding), the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the US Army Corps of Engineers…and many more to come as this project proceeds.  Optimists among us think we can complete it in less than 5 years, realists expect it to take a little longer.  But we’re on our way.

Why?  Because we THINK BIG!  And we bring individual and collective PASSION for the River and its watershed!  And when we set our minds to something, WE CAN DO IT!

And why do you support the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly?  Because you love this River, and you believe in what we’re doing, and you want to be part of re-awakening a 150-year Rip Van Winkle of a waterway.

Let’s do this!  Let’s do it together!