Via Michigan Public Radio comes the news that “the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has given the green light to an exploratory copper drilling project…in a one square mile area located on the western edge of Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. ”

This is a stunning development.  According to MPR, the Department did not provide public notice of the proposed permit.  But even sadder is the state’s lack of awareness of past attempts to exploit the park.  In fact, it was born during World War II in a race against a logging company seeking to topple its magnificent forest.

Ironically, during one of three subsequent attacks on the park’s integrity, outdoor writer Ben East wrote:  “We in Michigan have grown firm in the belief that once an area is placed in the hands of the Conservation Commission, it is safe.  To break that tradition would be the most serious mistake the Commission can make.”

That’s still true.  Just change “Conservation Commission” to “Michigan Department of Natural Resources.”

Yes, the Department says, “any future mining would be by underground methods from land Highland Copper owns outside the park.”  No one should be sanguine that this assures park protection.

What follows is almost 2000 words, and almost 100 years, of history.

Saving the Porcupines – Again and Again

The “largest unbroken tract of virgin hardwood timber in the U.S,” according to a Department of Conservation description, the Porcupine Mountains area encompassed 130,000 acres in Gogebic and Ontonagon Counties on the shores of Lake Superior in the western Upper Peninsula. Although not towering by Appalachian or Rocky Mountain standards, the Porcupines ranged as high as 1,420 feet above Lake Superior and provided countless scenic recesses. Hemlocks covered the lower altitudes, while sugar maples and oak spread over the ridges and upper valleys. Untouched white pines fringed rivers and streams. The Lake of the Clouds sat on a tableland high above the surrounding country, ridges on its flanks offering expansive views of Lake Superior and adjacent peaks. The Mountains “are startling in their infinite variety of cool, dense forests; breath-taking heights; roaring and rumbling waterfalls; and awe inspiring vistas,” said the Department in its booklet describing its hopes to purchase a recreation area. But there was a threat: “Logging companies are nibbling at the fringes and promise to invade the interior at an early date. The country they have left behind them is typical hardwood cut over land cleared of all standing timber except the defective trees. This should not happen to the Porcupine Mountains.”

As early as 1925, State Parks Director Hoffmaster had proposed a state park in the area, his first recommendation calling for a minimum buy of 22,000 acres. He had written in a letter to Department of Conservation Director John Baird that the area contained the highest point in the U.S. between the Alleghenies and the Black Hills, noting, “No other place in Michigan contains the extensive rock formations – bold cliffs and striking topography; no other portion typifies so well primitive Michigan with untouched forests.” But the Legislature had never appropriated the money.

In 1943 the Department was joined by conservationists. The legendary Aldo Leopold wrote in the May, 1942 issue of Outdoor America that the remaining unlogged land in the Porcupines was “a symbol.  It portrays a chapter in national history which we should not be allowed to forget. When we abolish the last sample of the Great Uncut, we are, in a sense, burning books…To preserve a remnant of decent forest for public education is surely a proper function of government, regardless of one’s view on the moot question of large-scale timber production.” Michigan outdoor writer Ben East also decried the potential loss of the Porcupine forest, lamenting, “The mistakes made in the great pine harvest 50 to 75 years ago, mistakes Michigan still has ample cause to regret, are being repeated day by day in the hardwood country of the Porcupines.”

Raymond Dick, an Ironwood produce dealer, was already on the case. “As one walks through these dimmed forest aisles with the rays of the sun slanting through the treetops, and the ground soft under foot and free from underbrush, one feels a sense of reverence and peace,” he had written of the Porcupine Mountains. In 1940 he had established the Save the Porcupine Mountains Association, an unusually effective lobbying instrument which eventually included in its membership Vice President Henry Wallace, the director of the National Park Service, former Governor Chase Osborn, and Leopold. Dick invited Governor Kelly to visit the area. Kelly, who had lost a leg in World War I, was only able to get to the mouth of the Presque Isle River, but committed himself to the project. In a special message to the Legislature in early 1944, he asked the Legislature for a $5 million appropriation to help buy land in the Porcupines as well as southeast Michigan parklands. He said the area should be “purchased for preservation as a timber museum” to hold the land in trust for future generations. The Legislature acted with unusual swiftness, appropriating the money before the end of February. But the Porcupines were not yet safe.

Debate in the Legislature had revealed the problem. Rep. William G. Stenson had filibustered for 90 minutes against the bill, seeking an amendment to permit private interests to remove “dead timber” from the park area. Although defeated 63-2, the amendment signaled the interest of timber companies in getting at hardwoods in the Porcupines, whose value was inflated because of World War II needs. Lumberman Gordon Connor had asked the Legislature to carve out 8,000 acres from the proposed 43,000-acre park but had been refused. Only 2,880 acres, or about one third of the Connor holdings, were excluded. In response, he accelerated his timber cutting. In a letter to Hoffmaster, he wrote, “You perhaps do not realize we are the largest producer of lumber and lumber products in the Lake States.” He renewed his request to exclude from the park timberlands owned by the company, this time asking for 2,500 acres, and enlisted the War Production Board in Washington, D.C. in his bid.

Hoffmaster refused to back down. The company wanted to skin lands along the Presque Isle River, which his department said were among the most scenic in the park, and timber along the shoreline between the river mouth and the mountains. By then the company had laid track for a railroad across the Presque Isle River to cut through three-quarters of a mile of the park to get into land it owned outside the boundaries. Conservation Commission Chair Harry H. Whiteley said if the railroad was built, “the Presque Isle River watershed would become a denuded waste and its beauty destroyed forever.” He said the company was greedy and inflexible, adding, “I must say that in its larger aspects this case only represents the baronial concepts of the early lumber operators toward the natural resources which came within their grasp.”

Hoffmaster agreed to adjust the boundaries of the proposed park slightly, permitting cutting on 798 acres, but asked the Conservation Commission to initiate condemnation proceedings to take the remaining land. The Commission did so in April, asking the Attorney General to go to court to restrain Connor Company from cutting any of the lands now included in the park boundaries. Although the condemnation proceedings bounced around in courts for eight years, the state was able to secure the lands and the company never touched the prime acreage.

The victory was an enormous one, celebrated nationally.  “…[I]t is no exaggeration to say it is being done in the nick of time,” wrote Dorothea Kahn of the Christian Science Monitor. “The axes of lumbermen could be heard at the borders of the forest.” National Parks Magazine editorialized, “It is little short of a miracle to have succeeded in this endeavor in the midst of a war. By so doing, Michigan has set an example to the whole nation…Michigan conservationists, our hats are off to you!”

The Porcupine Mountains State Park faced two subsequent threats.  In 1954 the state Conservation Commission dedicated 45,000 acres of the Park as a nature reservation, making it off-limits to most development.  But in 1958 mineral companies took an interest in copper ore believed to lie beneath the park.  The Bear Creek Mining Company asked in May of that year for a lease to explore over 900 acres under the park and another 5,200 acres of Lake Superior bottomland. Although the state owned but 30 per cent of the mineral rights within park boundaries, it controlled surface access and thus could promote or block the request. The request touched off a bitter debate.

On one side was the company and many residents of the area, which had chronically high unemployment.  On the other was a coalition of groups led by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs and guided by its executive director, James Rouman.  The coalition united under the banner of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Association.  Selling 85,000 stamps featuring the Lake of the Clouds, the Association marshaled both state and national public opinion against the proposed lease.   The possible $6 million income from copper mining, the coalition argued, was far less than the annual $3 to $10 million that would come from tourist businesses for hundreds of years into the future.

Jack Van Coevering, the outdoor editor of the Detroit Free Press, credited Conservation Commission member Clarence Messner with helping turn the tide.  “Messner took up the cudgels.  He alerted conservation groups and other citizens.  He built a ‘fire’ of public indignation which swept first through the Lower Peninsula, then even into the Upper Peninsula where business men and promoters were thirsting from money for the short term.”

Ben East, the longtime editor of the Grand Rapids Press, captured the reasons for the public outrage: “We in Michigan have grown firm in the belief that once an area is placed in the hands of the Conservation Commission, it is safe. To break that tradition would break the most serious mistake the Commission can make.”

But Rouman was the key.  He “tackled the job with vigor, criss-crossing the state relentlessly to speak before civic groups, clubs, and whoever would listen.  He urged individuals to write to their representatives, senators, Governor, the Michigan Conservation Commission, and anyone who could possibly help.”  The coalition acquired a critical partner when the United Auto Workers and the Michigan AFL-CIO announced their opposition to the lease.  “If the permit is granted – and the pressure for it is tremendous, inspired by those who would profit – the Porcupine Mountain wilderness will be wilderness no longer,” wrote John J. D’Agostino and Olga Madar of the UAW Recreation Department to recreation committee members.  Pointing out that copper was in surplus, they added, “It is obvious that leasing of this valuable state land will not provide jobs in the immediate future.”

The organizing effort worked.  Unwilling to commit to a timetable for exploring and developing whatever copper underlay the park and buffeted by the opposition’s wilderness cries, Bear Creek lost its support on the Conservation Commission and withdrew its request for the lease in January 1959.

Protection of the Park’s wilderness values was still far from guaranteed.  In the early 1960s, the Michigan Legislature approved funds to extend a state highway west from the park entrance far to the heart of the park at Presque Isle River, but Governor John Swainson vetoed the sum.  In 1962, local State Senator Joe Mack called for reducing the 30,000 acres of virgin timber in the park to only 10,000 acres to promote economic development.  The same coalition that had turned back the copper mining proposal thwarted this proposal as well as Mack’s effort to construct a fish ladder on the lower falls of the Presque Isle River.

The climactic battle to save the Porcupines from development occurred in 1971.  Prepared in consultation with local officials and environmentalists alike, a proposed state management plan would set side 35,000 acres of the park as permanent, unspoiled wilderness.  In the years since 1958, public sentiment for setting aside untouched lands had only grown stronger.  A parade of witnesses at a public hearing in Lansing argued for the wilderness designation.  Once again, the UAW’s Madar was on hand. “We are proud that the state of Michigan had the foresight to preserve one of the last extensive pieces of unspoiled wilderness in the Midwest for the enjoyment and recreation of all its citizens.  We urge that the area continue to be protected for future generations.” Margery Fahrenbach, the daughter of the late Department of Conservation Director P.J. Hoffmaster, emotionally pleaded with the state:  “My father fought long and hard to help acquire this area for the people of Michigan.  He loved those mountains with their wild and unspoiled beauty and I believe he envisioned them as a ‘preservation,’ a bit of country that should and can be preserved as God made it.”  The only witness speaking in favor of development was Gordon Connor, president of the firm which had raced in 1944 to log what was now the state park.  But the Department of Natural Resources rejected his plea, and the park got a new name: “Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.”