MARQUETTE - The Marquette County Board is demanding answers after allegations surfaced Tuesday that aided by unresponsive county officials, armed security guards from the Huron Mountain Club have been illegally harassing anglers fishing in the public, navigable waters of the Salmon Trout River near Big Bay.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to have Marquette County Sheriff Michael Lovelace, Marquette County Prosecutor Matthew Wiese and Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki present at the panel's Feb. 7 meeting to discuss the issue.
"It's embarrassing to hear what's been going on up there," Commissioner Jim Cihak said.
A summertime photo of the bridge along Marquette County Road KK over the Salmon Trout River in Powell Township where anglers and the Huron Mountain Club have clashed over public fishing access. (Journal file photo by Dave Schneider)
Public access to the Salmon Trout River - home to the last native population of coaster brook trout along the south shore of Lake Superior - is only available from the mouth of the stream or at a bridge along Marquette County Road KK.
For decades, the private Huron Mountain Club has attempted to keep the public off the water arguing that there is no public access available to the stream at the bridge. But past statements or rulings from local and state officials, including Michigan's attorney general, have kept the access at the bridge open, but still contentious.
Last April, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a June 2010 decision by Marquette County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Solka which found in favor of the county road commission. Solka said a 2009 road abandonment process conducted by the road commission - which the club thought had netted it the bridge and that short section of county road KK- was flawed and the road commission still retained the road and the bridge and public access was preserved.
On Tuesday, Donn Collins of Negaunee told the county board security guards had hassled fishermen on many occasions at the river. Collins' family owns property about three miles from the bridge.
In the wake of Solka's decision, with the help of county Commissioner Gerald Corkin - who represents Collins' district - a meeting was arranged in July 2010 with Lovelace, Corkin, Collins and his brother, Collins said.
Collins said Lovelace agreed to formally advise the club not to hassle anglers and that he would get a legal document for Collins, and others in the public, to carry to prove the right to access.
Lovelace reportedly said the police officers were not doing law enforcement business when working for the club and the moonlighting officers had no jurisdiction to demand identification or fishing licenses. Collins said he was told the officers could only ticket anglers if they were actually trespassing on club property.
Collins said Lovelace never made good on any of his pledges, an assertion supported by Corkin.
"Everything that he said is accurate," Corkin said. "Promises were made to clarify the situation and nothing has ever happened."
Lovelace said today he will review Tuesday's meeting tape before commenting fully on Collins' claims, but he said some of his assertions are "definitely untrue." Lovelace said he did attempt to help, until he found out the road abandonment issue was still being debated in the courts.
"It's out of my hands at that point," Lovelace said. "Once you find out it's in a court of law, there's nothing to be done."
Lovelace said once the issue is decided, then you can move forward.
Collins said he then returned to the river twice in August, before the end of the coaster brook trout season, once with a friend, and another time with his son.
"We were accosted by the guards on both occasions," Collins said.
The first time, he said the anglers were confronted by four or five armed security guards - who Collins recognized as retired or current off-duty county sheriff's deputies or other police officers - who wore Huron Mountain Club security patches, badges and uniforms.
Collins said the officers, who he referred to as Pinkertons, screamed at the fishermen as they tried to fish in the river. Collins said he was told he was trespassing and to leave. The officers demanded to see identification and fishing licenses and allegedly threw sticks in the water to scare the fish, Collins said.
"They were in your face," Collins said. "They can throw doubt and intimidation into any fisherman."
Collins said he had told them he had the right to access. On the second visit, he said the four guards who stopped him produced an email from Wiese telling the guards to ticket fishermen for trespassing who did not leave.
Collins said he contacted Wiese, who reportedly asked Collins to assure him he wouldn't go back to the river to fish for the rest of the season, while Wiese considered a decision on a new law, which could affect the situation. Collins said Wiese agreed to contact him within a week and a half, but he has not heard from him since.
Wiese said today the club had sought criminal trespass charges against Collins and Wiese had written the email based on the club guards' information the anglers had been trespassing. Wiese said the topic of the road abandonment was not clear to him and he proposed resolving the issue in a meeting with the parties before the new fishing season starts April 28.
"It really was not clear in my mind we had any criminal trespass," Wiese said. "It's obvious to me Mr. Collins just wants to fish and is not intending to trespass."
However, Wiese said the club's position is that there is no public access.
Collins asked the board to document the legal access right at the bridge; map, mark and improve the access; revoke the deputization of the club guards; have the deputies support the public, rather than the club; and work to get all interest groups on the same page.
"I think these are very legitimate requests that Donn is making," Cihak said.
Commissioner Bill Nordeen said he was reserving judgment until he hears more, but he found the allegations involving the Wiese email disturbing.
"It sounds appalling," Nordeen said.
Commissioner Michael Quayle said, "It sounds like we've got a big mess up there."
Board Chairwoman Deborah Pellow said she was unaware any of this had been going on.
"I think the sooner we deal with this, the better," Pellow said.
The road commission gave the Longyear Corporation a permit to build a temporary bridge at the site in 2010. Collins said the new span is narrower than the former bridge and access to the stream near the abutments has been made steeper and rougher, more challenging to gain access. He said the club had also used sticks and other debris to block informal trails used by anglers.
"This is what we talked about two years ago, the importance of public access," Corkin said, referring to the abandonment court decision. "They want to try to keep it as their own private river and not let anyone set their foot in it."
John Pepin can be reached at (906) 228-2500, Ext. 206.