FOREST LAKE - A $2.5 million Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund land purchase in Alger County -which has been in development for more than five years- may gain final approval next week in Saginaw.
The acquisition of Upper Peninsula Power Co. and U.P. Hydro property associated with the AuTrain Basin Waterfowl Refuge is on the agenda of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission's meeting Thursday, slated for potential action by Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh.
"I'm glad it's finally moving ahead and getting to the director's desk," said DNR Real Estate Section manager Steve Sutton in Lansing.
The AuTrain Dam is situated immediately south of M-94 at Forest Lake in Alger County. A DNR land acquisition under consideration would put 1,626 acres of UPPCO land and 556 acres of U.P. Hydro property around the dam and its basin under state control. (Journal file photo by John Pepin)
In 2006, waterfowlers and others had hoped the trust fund could finance purchase of the lands to preserve a waterfowl refuge on the south end of the basin. UPPCO officials -who had been seeking buyers for land situated around a few dams- said they were open to selling AuTrain Basin area property to the DNR.
In 2007, $1.25 million was approved from the trust fund for an initial purchase phase with another $1.25 million allocated from the fund in 2010. The project would acquire high-priority lands in the Au Train Basin Waterfowl Refuge and other associated lands for the purpose of wildlife habitat protection and public recreation.
However, after receiving the first phase funding approval, concerns about the future of the AuTrain Dam, the popular 1,557-acre basin and the sale of other property nearby, slowed the DNR acquisition.
UPPCO sought to divest itself of the AuTrain Dam hydroelectric project due to concerns about the cost of repairs needed for the dam to withstand the "probable maximum flood," as was required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Cost estimates for conceptual designs for the dam ranged from $8 million to $12 million.
In July 2008, UPPCO officials announced the costs of repairing the dam outstripped the value of the energy produced there. In May 2009, UPPCO officials said they had decided to either sell the dam to a party interested in operating the hydroelectric facility or the company would remove the dam.
During local scoping sessions, many area residents favored keeping the dam in place across the AuTrain River.
In July 2010, UPPCO closed its sale of the dam to North American Hydro, the largest independent power producer in the midwest. The new owners would make repairs to the dam to bring it back into compliance with requirements of the FERC.
The DNR land acquisition Creagh is considering approving would put 1,626 acres of UPPCO land and 556 acres of U.P. Hydro property under state control. Each purchase option is contingent upon the DNR acquiring the other property.
Local entities, including the Alger County Board, continue to support the purchase.
"The AuTrain Basin historically has been a favorite for both Alger County citizens and tourists for hunting, fishing and camping," said Alger County Board Chairman Jerry Doucette. "These types of attractions also add to the economic stability of Alger County with the interest of using public lands by out-of-area sportsmen and women. This project has been ongoing for a number of years and our local citizenry will be pleased to know of its completion."
Katherine Reynolds, director of the Alger County Chamber of Commerce, wrote a letter supporting the deal.
"We feel this acquisition will benefit Alger County and our natural resources," Reynolds said.
Doug Scheuneman, president of the Alger County Fish and Game Alliance, said the group strongly supports the land purchase, as it had from the beginning.
"Our organization was instrumental in promoting this purchase through a grant from our Natural Resources Trust Fund," Scheuneman said. "It is important for sportsmen and women not only in Alger County, but in other regions of the Upper Peninsula, to see that the waterfowl refuge, that was established in the '70s, continue to provide protection not only for ducks and geese, but for other bird species that migrate through this area of Alger County."
The DNR has been leasing the refuge land from UPPCO to conserve habitat for waterfowl and other species.
"If the Michigan DNR does not purchase this land it could then fall into private hands, be developed and the refuge would then no longer exist," Scheuneman said.
In a recommendation from DNR division chiefs to Creagh that the acquisition be approved, the chiefs detailed several characteristics which collectively make the properties "priority acquisitions" for the department.
Those characteristics included gaining ownership of U.P. Hydro land that the DNR has leased from landowners for many years for the management of the Forest Lake State Forest Campground, located on the west side of the basin.
The acquisition includes parcels bordering other public lands, including seven miles of border with state forest, six miles of U.S. Forest Service land and six miles of DNR owned Kamehameha Forestland Group conservation easement.
The properties -which are primarily wooded upland that has been actively managed for timber production with the assistance of professional foresters - are accessed at several points by county roads and two track roadways. Roughly 13 miles of the property is located within a quarter-mile of the basin.
Sutton said Creagh could decide to approve the staff recommendations at Thursday's NRC meeting or take more time to review the acquisition. Sutton said he was unaware of any particular issues threatening to block Creagh's approval.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org