Michigan Officials Seek Tough Clearing Rules
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. Tighter restrictions should be imposed on clearing vegetation from Great Lakes shorelines because it alters water chemistry and damages fish habitat, state regulators said.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said a recent scientific analysis showed that uprooting aquatic plants in coastal wetlands harms young game fish such as yellow perch and bass. It also reduces populations of invertebrates such as insects and snails that form crucial links in the aquatic food chain, the agency said.
"This research has shown that protecting coastal wetlands and maintaining the integrity of the vegetation is more important ecologically than we ever knew before," said Wil Cwikiel, assistant chief of the DEQ's land and water management division.
Shoreline property owners in some areas have pushed for the right to remove vegetation that sprouted in exposed bottomland areas when lake levels began dropping in the late 1990s. Some resort and hotel owners say the flora is unsightly on beaches and bad for business.
Environmentalists say the vegetation growth is a natural occurrence and is important to preserve wildlife habitat and prevent erosion.
About 90 percent of the 200 fish species in the Great Lakes use coastal wetlands for spawning, feeding and other crucial activities, said Rebecca Humphries, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. They also provide a refuge for native fish under siege from invasive species, Cwikiel said.
The Michigan Legislature in 2003 temporarily exempted mowing and other beach maintenance activities such as raking and leveling sand from the wetland protection law. And it established two areas -- Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron and Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay -- where proposals to completely remove waterfront vegetation would be given expedited consideration.
The law instructed the DEQ to evaluate the effects of the new procedures and issue a report. Scientists with Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University led the study.
Unless extended by the Legislature, the law dealing with Saginaw and Grand Traverse bays will expire June 3. The beach maintenance law is scheduled to lapse Nov. 1, 2007.
Based on the study's findings, the DEQ wants to let both measures expire and replace them with new rules.
Under the proposed regulations, vegetation removal would require a permit -- a higher hurdle than the expedited letter of request now required for the two bays. The agency has approved 78 of 90 such requests since the 2003 law took effect.
The DEQ said it typically would grant a permit for uprooting exotic plant species such as phragmites, which have invaded beaches in the Saginaw Bay area. Vegetation removal for other reasons might be approved if it wouldn't do major harm to coastal habitat or neighboring properties.
The DEQ said it would try to simplify its permitting process and coordinate more closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose approval also is needed to alter shoreline vegetation.
Additionally, the DEQ said it would set new rules for beach maintenance after the existing ones expire. Minimal activities such as raking that don't disturb plant roots would be allowed, but permits would be required for more substantial actions such as mowing and mechanical disking. The type of permit would depend on how disruptive the work would be.
"The DEQ staff will work with property owners through our permit program to ensure Michigan's citizens can enjoy access to our waters," DEQ director Steven Chester said in a statement. "At the same time, we will protect the bottomland vegetation that provides habitat for the vast populations of fish and wildlife that rely upon them."
Source: Associated Press