REXTON - The Rexton area, where forests and marshes stretch as far as the eye can see down rolling country roads, is the kind of place where you're likely to see a deer before you see a neighbor.
And now the few residents in the Upper Peninsula community are at a crossroads. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is considering the largest sale of state-managed forestland in its history here - about 10,000 acres - to Graymont, a British Columbia-based limestone mining company. It would be used to create a sprawling, 13,000-acre, open-pit and underground mining operation touching three U.P. counties - Luce, Mackinac and Chippewa.
Residents seem to agree that the Graymont proposal would change life as they know it. Whether it's a change for the better is what they're struggling with.
Shown in this recent photo is Wilwin Road, a narrow dirt road in Rexton that could soon be expanded to accomodate large trucks carrying limestone from a proposed limestone mine. (AP photo)
The prospect of a giant development coming to this bucolic area offers much to consider: conservationists who question whether the DNR has the authority to sell the land; the state hoping the project could provide a multimillion-dollar economic stimulus; and nervous residents - who would welcome the jobs - questioning the effects mining activities would have on their quality of life, groundwater and property values.
Retirees Kathy English and her husband Al English, who live a few miles east of Rexton in nearby Trout Lake Township, said they came for the tranquil setting, all the state and federal forestland surrounding them, the lakes and all the outdoor activities the area offers.
"To us, having the area desecrated - if you've ever seen a mine area, it's like the moon; it's a vast wasteland," Kathy English said. "We don't want what we have spoiled. If they start mining by us, we're going to leave."
But the loss of a more idyllic life is a trade some are ready to make.
The area's beauty masks a community grappling with an aging population and lack of economic opportunity. Rexton's business district has one convenience store-gas station, just got its first traffic light - a blinker - and has no residents.
The few folks calling the area home, mostly retirees, live in surrounding townships. The two townships that Rexton sits between, Hendricks and Hudson, together have 160 square miles and 348 people.
It's an area known for its long, magnificent snowmobile and off-road vehicle trails.
"You can buy a hunting camp here, leave your driveway and just ride forever," said Russell Nelson, owner of the Rexton Country Store and supervisor of Hendricks Township.
But uncooperative weather and a bad economy in recent years took a chunk out of tourism, he said. And a lack of more diverse opportunities has proved a chronic drain on the community over decades. The local schools struggle as student numbers dwindle, Nelson said.
Hudson Township had 214 residents in the 2000 census. The number dropped to 183 residents by 2010. The mean age of residents rose from 42 in 2000 to nearly 55 a decade later, said Hudson Township Supervisor Al Garavaglia.
"We're having trouble getting enough first responders and firemen," he said. "Everybody's just getting older."
Graymont proposes only six jobs at its mine, but residents are hoping for ripple effects and indirect jobs - like trucking - and hanging on the company's consideration of installing a processing plant at the mining site some years down the road.
Nelson and Garavaglia said they believe most residents lean in favor of Graymont's proposal, but have serious questions about potential impacts to their water wells, as well as dust, noise and truck traffic.
"It's so massive," Garavaglia said. "The magnitude is a little scary, for sure."
Graymont, the second-largest producer of lime in North America, operates in locations across the U.S., including the Port Inland lime plant in the U.P. town of Gulliver, about 45 miles west of Rexton. The lime is used in numerous industrial processes and in products ranging from toothpaste to plaster.
Graymont was fined $200,000 by the State of Wisconsin in 2012 for air-quality violations at its limestone-processing facility in Superior. The company also was fined $7,500 for similar violations at its limestone plant in Centre County, Pa., in 2010.
The Michigan DNR allowed Graymont to drill test holes around the area last year. The land company officials now propose to purchase from the state "has the quantity and quality of the limestone we are looking for," said P.J. Stoll, manager of Graymont's Gulliver facility.
"We're a family-owned business that looks generations down the road, 100-plus years for our business plan," he said. "We've got the (Port Inland) plant, so we're trying to get a little more stability as far as supply."
No more than 800 acres of surface mining could be active at any time under the proposed agreement. Graymont would be required to undertake reclamation activities in areas where it stopped mining.
"It's a very complex transaction they've asked for, and it's a significant amount of land," said Bill O'Neill, chief of the DNR's Forest Resources Division. "We've purchased land of that size, but I don't know that we've ever sold land of that many acres."
Though terms are still under negotiation, the DNR would receive payment for the surface lands and mineral rights, and also would receive a royalty fee based on tonnage of limestone mined, similar to the royalty fees paid on oil and natural gas drilling operations, O'Neill said.
Potential revenues haven't yet been figured out, but the Graymont operation "could be worth nine figures as far as economic stimulation in Michigan," O'Neill said.
Graymont also is considering building a processing plant on the mining site at some point, which could add local jobs and spur local economic activity, Stoll said.
The Mackinac County Board approved a resolution this spring in favor of the deal.
"They're talking about the sale of 10,000 acres," board Chairman Jim Hill said. "The first open mine would be at a site that is already an old mine that's been sitting there. The preponderance of their mining would be underground. Nobody would even know it's there, for all intents and purposes.
"We need the jobs."
Much remains unresolved in the Graymont deal, including the mine's impact on local roads.
"They said they'll be doing a million tons a year," Garavaglia said. "That's 100 truckloads a day. We want assurances from Graymont that they will resurface the roads as they need it."
Kathy English disputes claims of widespread support for the Graymont deal. Her unscientific polling in Trout Lake Township - mailings she sent out to every township property owner at her own expense - showed overwhelming opposition to the deal, she said.
Another retiree, Art Mills of Rexton, also opposes the project. Born and raised in the area, Mills did what many young people there do - he left when he was 17 to find a job.
"I didn't want to do logging," he said.
He worked in construction in the Detroit and Flint areas before retiring and returning to his beloved U.P. 15 years ago.
"I enjoy picking blueberries, picking mushrooms," he said. "This year I made 6 gallons of maple syrup for my kids and myself.
"I can't see the U.P. destroyed like they are going to end up doing. After a while, you're not going to have a job. The limestone's going to be gone, and the U.P. is going to be torn up. And if they don't destroy the water when digging now, what about 50 years from now?"
The decision on the Graymont deal ultimately rests with DNR Director Keith Creagh. The DNR is seeking more details from Graymont officials on mining operation specifics, as well as soliciting studies to gauge potential impacts on hydrology.
The department also soliciting input local residents and area tribes, O'Neill said.
"We want to be timely in our decision, but this is a very complicated analysis," he said. "We're not in a hurry to do this."
Whether the DNR even can make such a deal is unclear. In an April 16 letter to Creagh, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs said the DNR can only consider the sale of surplus lands, and the property in question does not meet the criteria.
"Declaring this much acreage surplus land is a precedent-setting policy that we feel will have a lot of negative consequences if that goes forward," MUCC resource policy manager Amy Trotter said. "We feel creating a big doughnut hole in the center of state forestland violates the DNR's own goals to be the manager of environmental resources and not diminish the forestlands around it."
After careful consideration, if the DNR wishes to continue with Graymont, it should consider a long-term lease of the land instead of an outright sale, Trotter said.
"Then, if they aren't following environmental rules or all the other things that can go wrong, the department has the ability to pull the lease," she said.
Garavaglia said he and Nelson think the state has been less than forthcoming with information.
"It's been absolutely frustrating, especially for me and Russ," he said. "It's our communities, it's our people. You want to find out everything you can.
"We can see the positive aspects of it, but you have to be cautious on something as huge as this."