HUMBOLDT - Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials are investigating a complaint about timber company road work in western Marquette County some local environmental groups fear could mark the surreptitious start to construction of Marquette County Road 595.
Federal permits required for building the roughly 21-mile north-south County Road 595 - which would connect the Eagle Mine in Michigamme Township with access to the Humboldt Mill - were never issued largely because of wetlands concerns.
However, several local governmental agencies have continued to lobby for funding and permit reconsideration for the $80 million road, which would also be used to haul gravel and timber and provide increased access for recreation.
Patrick Riley, a senior resource forester with Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc., talks about improvements scheduled to take place at the Mulligan Creek crossing. The old bridge will be replaced, removing off-road vehicle traffic from the streambed of the river and allowing passage of logging trucks. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
A completed Plum Creek culvert installation is pictured, with a check dam and rocks in place to lessen erosion, along Snowmobile Trail No. 5 in western Marquette County. Both photos were taken Wednesday. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
In late June, a worker with the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve's RiverKeeper program - which monitors activity in hopes of protecting the watersheds of the Yellow Dog and Salmon Trout rivers - discovered the Plum Creek Timber Co. Inc. had begun road construction work along Snowmobile Trail No. 5 that the worker said did not meet stated permit conditions.
In a news release, the preserve said Plum Creek's permit allowed for construction at the Mulligan Creek Bridge and included additional fill and trenching for ditches on either side of the snowmobile trail.
When the worker visited the site, no DEQ permit was posted, no silt fencing was in place, and other sedimentation protection best management practices were absent next to this high-quality wetland and cold water trout stream, the preserve said.
In addition to the Mulligan Creek activity, several culverts had been installed along the trail with no permits posted on site or applications on file with the DEQ, the worker said.
Save the Wild U.P. President Kathleen Heideman said she was outraged.
"We've already been through an administrative process during which three federal agencies determined that the County Road 595 development should not occur. If that's what's occurring now - if the construction happening out at the Mulligan Creek is just a backdoor for building County Road 595 after all - then this is illegal," Heideman said. "The EPA's decision was very clear: No County Road 595 route should be constructed. Now the Mulligan Creek and its fragile headwaters are being gouged, dredged, driven-through, filled, and degraded - it is absolutely obscene."
Ginny Pennala, district supervisor for the resource programs portion of the DEQ's Water Resources Division on the Marquette District, said the agency received the complaint June 27.
The work is taking place along parts of a roughly 5-mile stretch of the road/snowmobile trail, located northwest of the Silver Lake Basin.
"Existing roads and trail have been upgraded with some sections of trail moved to adjacent areas," Pennala said. "The road work crosses wetlands, and several stream crossing replacements are in progress. DEQ has been informed that the road construction is for improved logging access."
Charlie Becker, lake states senior resource manager for Plum Creek, said the area was last logged many years ago and the company is improving the snowmobile trail to allow for logging truck travel.
He said the trail is situated on roads built in the 1970s and 1980s or before. The improvements will include new bridges over Mulligan Creek and the Yellow Dog River and several culverts. Rocks have been blasted in some places which will be covered with gravel, developing the road to a running surface width of 16 feet, wider on corners. Becker said typical county roads measure 30 to 33 feet wide for the running surface.
Becker concedes the trail work is close to the previously planned road bed for County Road 595.
"It's definitely in the vicinity of it and there's probably areas where it crosses it," he said.
However, Becker said the improvements are not a basis for County Road 595.
"We did not get wetland permits and that kind of stuff, so it is not permitted for anything other than forestry and logging purposes," Becker said.
Becker said Plum Creek has eyed logging in the area, comprised largely of upland hardwoods, and watched County Road 595 developments.
"It has been our plan for years, upwards of five to eight years, to go in and access that 1,600 acres of timber that we've wanted to get to," Becker said. "When there was discussion about 595, we figured, 'Why should we go and put a bunch of money into a road if we're going to have a county road right next to it, or close enough to where we can build spur roads off it to get to it?' So we had put our plans on hold until we saw what happened."
With the EPA unwilling to remove its objections, the DEQ decided not to issue permits for County Road 595 in January 2013.
"Once it basically went away, then it's like, 'Nobody's going to build us a free road,' so I guess we've got to go through the effort ourselves," Becker said. "Now obviously, our footprint is significantly less than what theirs is."
Becker said the DEQ permit included replacement of the Mulligan Creek crossing and installation of two culverts were stream bed and banks were detected. Additional culverts - which did not require permits - were put in at places where water level needed to be equalized on either side of the road.
Pennala said forest roads are exempt from wetland regulation when wetland impacts are minimized. Becker said a total of roughly one half-acre of wetlands have been affected.
Since the river worker's visit, green permit notices have been posted at the culvert crossings.
Becker said the permit for one of the two permitted culverts and the Mulligan crossing were not previously posted because work had not started there yet, although orange snow fencing had been erected to delineate the road bed at the Mulligan bridge.
Becker said the permit on the remaining culvert was posted within 48 hours of the work beginning. Another permit has been applied for, but not yet issued, to replace the Clowry Bridge over the Yellow Dog River.
Pennala said there are some places in the work zone where the state will require Plum Creek to do provide some remedies.
"The DEQ is currently working with Plum Creek to bring the road construction into compliance by requesting restoration of wetland impacts outside of the road footprint," Pennala said.
Becker said the DEQ will formally make its requests in a letter expected to be issued within the next 10 days. Meanwhile, the DEQ visited the site with Plum Creek staff and verbally suggested some improvements, including pulling dirt back toward the road from wetlands and installing small check dams to help stop erosion.
"A few things that were pointed out, some of the check dams, that was going to occur, but we were waiting to get a little bit further down the road to do, but when they brought up the idea of doing it right away, we said, 'OK, we can do that,'" Becker said.
Work on Mulligan Creek crossing is expected to start within the next couple of weeks. Becker said the new bridge will keep off-road vehicle riders from driving through the river.
"What we're doing there is we're going to improve the situation that's around that because of the dilapidated bridge that's been there for years now," Becker said. "That crossing will actually be an improvement when it's done."
Becker said some rerouting of the road will also be beneficial.
"This is not an entirely brand new road, it's basically making improvements to a road that's been here for many years," Becker said. "Some of it had gotten to being a little less passable in some areas and the new pieces of road were basically pushed around in uplands to minimize the impact on wetlands. We feel pretty good about that. That was really the right thing to do as far as minimizing impacts."
Botanist Steve Garske, who is secretary at Save the Wild U.P., is among those concerned about hundreds of narrow-leaved gentian plants he saw along the two-track snowmobile trail in 2009 in the Mulligan Creek headwaters area.
"When they bulldozed this new, unpermitted road they undoubtedly buried, destroyed, or otherwise degraded colonies of this protected species, a clear violation of state law," Garske said.
The gentian plant is a threatened species in Michigan, which occurs in partially-wooded wetland areas of Marquette, Baraga and Keweenaw counties, including Isle Royale National Park.
Plum Creek hired a botanist contractor to identify any of the plants in the area where the road was being planned. The DEQ also advised the timber company of the plant's occurrence in that area.
Plum Creek applied for an incidental take permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which was secured last October.
"If there is any disturbance within the road bed where you're doing your work, we have a permit that says OK you're not breaking the law, you have a permit to incidentally take those if that happens," Becker said. "But it doesn't mean you can go do anything willy nilly."
The environmental groups are expected to continue monitoring the construction activity.
With County Road 595 not being built, the Lundin Mining Corp. has since funded significant reconstruction of sections of Marquette County roads AAA, 510 and 550 to an all-season standard to haul ore from the Eagle Mine to the mill. Nickel and copper production at the mine is scheduled to begin this fall.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.