The White River: Newaygo County’s Forgotten River Part I

By: Charles Chandler
Reprinted by permission
Ken DeLaat, Publisher, Near North Now

Part I: The White River is a case study in complexity. It flows through about 80 miles of beautifully mixed forest lands, much of those in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. There are a variety of rural and urban landowners along those miles, and the river is used for a variety of recreational activities.

The water itself is owned by the State of Michigan. There are several regulatory agencies that set policy, provide oversight and guidance for the wildlife that lives in the river, as well as for human activities in and along the river. They are the US Fish and Wildlife, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the County Drain Commission, The Emergency Services Department, the Cities of White Cloud and White Hall, the Village of Hesperia, and various townships. The White River is a State designated “Natural River.” This means, in short, that a Natural Rivers zoning permit is required for most development activities within 400 feet of the river. More on this later in the article.

The White River, while near the Pere Marquette and Muskegon rivers, is different from both in many ways. Both of the latter rivers have been developed and maintained for fishing and kayaking. As such, both are national and international destinations for kayakers and fishermen. Both recreational activities provide significant year-round economic benefits to the local economies of Newaygo and Baldwin. The two rivers provide many good paying jobs to their respective communities, and the value of properties surrounding the rivers are, in general, much higher than those surrounding the White. An empty lot lying on the Pere Marquette is often more highly priced than a home which lies along the banks of the White Cloud Pond.

Compared to the Pere Marquette and Muskegon Rivers, the White River is clearly undervalued, misunderstood, is somewhat ignored, and with few friends. It is a relatively slow flowing river, often times shallow, and winds its way quietly along the wooded river bottoms. It is a kayaker’s river, with many narrow passageways, too narrow for riverboats, and too shallow for motors. It will never be a ‘party river’, but rather one which provides a very contemplative experience to those with the patience to enjoy it.

For many years the White River resisted those who sought to experience it. A short section of the upper White, from White Cloud Dam to the Flowing Wells Park was all that was readily available to travelers. Until this past summer, the path beyond was strewn with hundreds of deadfalls and log jams blocking the way. The section of the upper White between E. Echo Drive in White Cloud and S. Baldwin Ave had about 80 log jams or other woody debris obstructions that, in years past, had to be portaged around. It appeared that many had been there for decades, probably forming shortly after the last saw logs were floated downriver to Lake Michigan.

Members of the White River Kayaking Coalition are sometimes asked why they worked to create a passable water trail from White Cloud to Hesperia. They did so for the love of the river, and to give other kayakers the opportunity to paddle an incredibly beautiful river that runs through our backyard. Beyond that, they wanted to develop a water trail that could provide river access to fishermen, and provide an economic benefit for riverside landowners and for the bookend municipalities of White Cloud and Hesperia.

This work was, in a word, grueling. The project took leadership, dedicated people with operational skills and the appropriate tools, equipment, time, and guidance from the DNR staff. Mother nature helped as well. Last summer was exceptionally hot and dry, resulting in shallow, warm water. These were good conditions for river workers, but very bad news for trout and other organisms that need cold clear water to thrive, (more on this in the next article).

Several people asked, and are still asking “is it legal for you to do this?” The answer is clearly and definitely ‘yes’. There is an incredible amount of misinformation about Natural Rivers, which may be one of the factors that caused the upper stretches of the White to become impassable.

Another question was, “why can’t the landowner help keep the river clear of log jams?” The answers are as varied as the landowners. For example, there are many absentee landowners along the river that are unaware that trees on their property have fallen across the river. Other landowners don’t have the tools or are not physically able to do the work. A few do not want to see the obstructions removed because they fear the White will become a pathway for trespassers, and their property vandalized or littered with trash.

Many of these concerns are clearly misplaced. The White River will never become another Muskegon or even another Pere Marquette. It is physically very different from both. Shallow drafted riverboats, rubber rafts, inner tubes, and water skis will all be barred by the hundreds of shallow stretches, dozens of narrow cutouts, and hundreds of sticks and branches embedded in the river’s bottom, waiting to puncture all but the very stoutest of rubber watercraft.

In an attempt to clarify the particular question about removing woody debris the staff in the DNR Natural River Program and the DEQ provided the following guidance, found at(http://www.hrwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Clean-and-Open-Method.pdf). If you follow these guidelines you do not need a Natural Rivers permit to clear the river of obstruction.

From the DNR Natural Rivers Staff comes the following: “Regarding kayaking and river work, in general, it should be understood that trees are a natural part of the Michigan river landscape. On small and medium-sized rivers, managing trees in the river is an expected part of the paddling experience. The watercraft should match the conditions of the river, rather than modifying the river to accommodate a certain type of watercraft. Portaging around obstructions may be necessary. Portaging is also a legal right on navigable streams, as the right to go around an obstruction or hazard in the river on private property is protected under the Recreational Trespass Law. A boater can portage around the obstruction or hazard even if exiting on private land is required. However, if an individual exits onto private land, that individual cannot linger while out of the river, but must immediately re-enter the river after walking around the obstacle. If someone is not comfortable with portaging around downed trees that block passage, a wider river that is less likely to be fully obstructed is recommended.

Woody material in the river is very positive from a fisheries management standpoint. Benefits include cover, resting areas, spawning areas for fish, insect production (fish and bird food), as well as habitat for many amphibious species. The goal, therefore, is to only cut or remove only what is necessary for passage, resulting in a balance between watercraft passage and maintenance of woody material in the stream.

There is no comprehensive statutory guidance on the legality of cutting trees for navigation. If a tree has fallen into the river but is still connected to the shoreline by its roots or trunk, it’s still considered the property of the private landowner where the tree is rooted. Only the landowner, or an individual with the landowner’s permission, can legally remove the whole tree.

However, if the river in question is considered navigable, it is generally held and practiced in Michigan that an individual can remove a portion of a fallen tree that is completely blocking navigation downstream. Landowner agreement is recommended. In general, the portion cleared should not exceed 8 feet in width. In some cases, this number will be higher for areas with fast water or tight curves, but more commonly it can be reduced due to slow water conditions. On slow moving streams that generally only see canoes and kayaks, the cleared width can usually be limited to 6 feet or less. Any section of a tree that is embedded in the stream, even if partially buried in the stream bottom, should not be disturbed. Removal of embedded woody material is considered dredging and dredging is regulated on all Michigan streams by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and additionally by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) if occurring on a designated Natural River. In addition, any wood removal should be conducted using hand-held tools such as hand saws and chainsaws. Any use of heavy equipment in the steam is regulated activity and requires a permit. Finally, removal of large logjams and beaver dams are more complex projects that may require permits from both the DNR and DEQ. Please contact both agencies before initiating these projects.”

The kayakers, river workers and landowners appreciate the guidance that has been provided by the DNR Natural Rivers program staff. Having quality information and knowledge of the ground rules truly reduces misunderstanding and improves collaboration along the river corridor. The DNR staff has received a number of responses to the informational letter and the zoning standards that was recently sent to landowners. They are happy to report that the outreach effort is making a difference.

The White River Kayaking Coalition used best practices when developing the White River water trail from White Cloud down to Hesperia. Those that have made the paddle have noticed that they stayed well below the recommended path width. In many cases, the trail is a narrow squeeze with short turns. Again, it is by its very nature, a trail for kayakers, and will severely limit or prohibit other watercraft use.

We humans often take a myopic view of the world we live in and only think about what is in front of us. The White River is a perfect example of this characteristic at work. After attending various committee meetings, getting permits, and having endless conversations with landowners, representative of various agencies, municipal residents and recreational users about the river, it is apparent that very few people consider the complete river in their deliberations. It is understandable because the river is not like a lake that stays in one place. It is somewhat linear and it starts here and goes there beyond property boundaries, city, township or county lines and jurisdictional districts and agency areas of responsibility. The river goes on, crosses all those lines while turning a bend here and there and is soon out of sight and often out of mind.

The purpose of the next phase of this water trail project is to facilitate the collaboration between the landowners, river users, municipalities and the regulatory agencies. Another goal is to further develop the necessary trail information, amenities, maps, signage, and recruiting trail maintainers that will hopefully lead to the coveted State of Michigan Water Trail Designation.

In order to achieve these goals and aspirations, the White needs a coalition of informed friends and stewards that take a holistic view of this dynamic and beautiful Michigan River. As those that kayak this river know it is much more than the cross-section slice that starts and ends with lot, property, or municipal bounders or departmental jurisdiction. It is much more than a place for the casual recreationalist to go for an experience, or to harvest some resource. It is truly one of Michigan hidden treasures and deserves due respect from all who access it.

It is with love, respect, and hope that the White River will no longer be the forgotten undervalued, misunderstood, often ignored beautiful Natural River that lies between the big Muskegon and the world-famous Pere Marquette. The next and last part of this series will address some controversial issues regarding fishing and the long-term health of the river.

For general information about the Natural Rivers Program access the DNR www.site https://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-350-79136_79236_82211—,00. For more detailed information about the zoning rules, standards, request for variances or guidance call the staff in the DNR Natural River Program. The point of contact is Administrator Kesiree Thiamkeelakul and she can be reached at phone (517-284-6245) or email (thiamkeelakulk@nullmichigan.gov). For general information about the Department of Environmental Quality access the DEQ www.site https://www.michigan.gov/deq/0,4561,7-135-3313_71520—,00.html