Sunday, February 22, 2015

DNR Chief approves mineral rights exchange with Graymont but delays decision on 10,000-acre land transaction; residents, groups express opposition to Graymont project

By Michele Bourdieu

Art and Dorothy Mills of Rexton in Mackinac County made this "No Mining" sign on the property of Al and Kathy English, residents of Trout Lake in nearby Chippewa County. Residents in this area of the eastern Upper Peninsula are concerned about a proposed 10,000-acre sale of public land to Graymont Inc., whose Rexton Project proposes both underground and open-pit limestone mining. (Photo © and courtesy Kathy English)

LANSING -- Art and Dorothy Mills of Rexton, Mich., who have been enjoying their retirement in a beautiful area of the eastern Upper Peninsula, have recently been making "No Mining" signs for themselves and their neighbors -- because of their concerns about the potential Graymont Rexton Project, a proposed limestone mining operation to include 10,000 acres of public land, centered in their township.*

"I was born up here," Art Mills told Keweenaw Now in a phone interview. "I love it up here. I have kids and grandkids living here."

Art, who spent many of his working years doing construction and laying pipes, says one main concern is that the limestone purifies their well water. If Graymont removes the limestone, the impacts to their water supply -- and to the land, forests, wildlife and plants -- could contaminate the water and upset the environment they know and love -- threatening their quality of life and that of their children and grandchildren.

Graymont Inc., North America's second largest supplier of lime and lime-based products, now in the process of applying to the Michigan Department of Natural Resource (DNR) with their land transaction proposal, has already received mineral rights for the project in an exchange with the state.

At the Feb. 12 meeting of the Michigan Natural Resources Committee (NRC) in Lansing, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Director Keith Creagh approved a mineral exchange with Graymont.

The action exchanges 1,700 acres of mineral rights in Chippewa County, in the eastern Upper Peninsula, that are currently owned by the state and are beneath land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. The action achieves a major DNR goal, which is to unify surface and mineral ownership where possible. The exchange does not guarantee that mining will take place on the Graymont minerals. In approving the exchange, Director Creagh pointed out that Graymont would have to work with the Forest Service before mining could occur.

A historical marker in the Hiawatha National Forest marks the site of a Depression-era federal project, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The marker is near the home of Al and Kathy English, whose property borders on federal land where state-owned mineral rights were recently exchanged with Graymont. (Photo © and courtesy Kathy English)

Creagh delayed a decision on a separate land transaction proposal from Graymont for a limestone mining operation in Mackinac County near the town of Rexton involving about 10,000 acres of state-managed public land. The transaction had been slated for a decision by the director at the Feb. 12 NRC meeting. However, in order to allow the public and the DNR to thoroughly review a revised proposal from the company, the director will now make a decision on the land transaction no earlier than the March 19, 2015, NRC meeting in Roscommon.**

This photo from June 2014 shows an old quarry just west of CR 393. This is the northeast side of the 1,005 acre North Hendricks Tract ("Tract A" in the proposal) which Graymont proposes to purchase from the State of Michigan.** (Photo and caption © and courtesy Steve Garske, Save the Wild U.P. board member)

At the Feb. 12 meeting, DNR Forestry Resources Division Chief Bill O'Neill updated the commission on Graymont's proposal. The department has received over 1,500 public comments to date and public comment remains open on the land transaction application that has not yet been decided. The comments include letters from environmental and tribal groups opposed to the Graymont project.

Save the Wild U.P. objects to Graymont proposal

"We are disappointed by the DNR’s approval of the mineral rights exchange," said Kathleen Heideman, president of grassroots environmental group Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP).

According to Steve Garske, biologist and SWUP board member, "Upper Michigan environmental organizations, including SWUP, have submitted extensive written comments outlining our serious objections to the Graymont proposal, including the exchange of mineral rights. This DNR decision fails to serve the DNR’s mission of conservation, protection, and public enjoyment of public natural resources. It benefits a foreign mining company at the expense of Michigan’s environment."

In July 2014 Garske published SWUP's statement opposing the original Graymont proposal in the Marquette Mining Journal, noting DNR staff opposition to the proposal.

In that article, Garske writes, "The DNR staff review is highly critical of the sale because it would dispose of some of the state's most productive and diverse forest land, fragment state forest land ownership, limit access to adjacent state lands and make them harder to manage, threaten wildlife populations and cold-water trout streams, reduce hunting and other recreational opportunities, and cost millions in logging revenues."

This wetland is just east of Borgstrom Road, near Rexton. Wetlands cover most of the northern and eastern portions of the proposed underground mine area ("Tract D" in the Graymont proposal).** (Photo and caption © and courtesy Steve Garske)

Garske adds, "Consolidation of political power in state government has resulted in a situation where the director of the Michigan DNR, Keith Creagh (a Snyder appointee), has sole authority to decide whether or not to sell this land to Graymont. If MDNR gets away with selling over 10,000 acres of prime state forest land to a private company, any state land could be sold."

Jon Saari, SWUP vice president, notes the multiple revisions in the proposal make it difficult for the public to comment.

"The Graymont proposal has become an administrative circus," Saari said. "First introduced in 2012, the proposal gets revised a bit every time objections are raised, including most recently a week before a decision was to be made by the DNR Director! How are we in the public supposed to comment on this moving target? Which proposal? The original one? The final one? The final final one? This is no way to conduct public business. It is a joke. The Graymont proposal should be thrown out for toying with the DNR and the public."

Repeating SWUP's request in their earlier comments that the DNR reject the Graymont proposal and urging the public to oppose the project, Alexandra Maxwell, SWUP interim director, notes, "The proposed sale would fail Michigan’s taxpayers, tribes, the Eastern Upper Peninsula’s growing sustainable forest and tourism economies, and especially Michigan’s environment, sacrificing critical habitat and rare species."

Maxwell adds, "The Graymont proposal includes lands currently open to the public for hunting and recreational trails, lands supporting wildlife, and lands managed for timber -- contiguous forest lands considered 'some of the most productive forest land in the Eastern Upper Peninsula' by the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition. Graymont’s Land Transaction Application has yet to be decided though, and there is still time to make your objections heard."***

Residents question benefits of project

Art Mills, who has been aware of the proposal since it was first introduced to his community with the promise of four to six local jobs, now increased to about 45, says he doubts the project will do anything to benefit the local population, despite gifts being made by Graymont to schools and community groups.

"Somebody's got to stick up for Mother Nature," he said. "Money's not everything."

Dorothy Mills adds that the area is mostly a retirement community and, while some people are reserved about giving their opinion on the project, many residents are opposed to the project, as evidenced in a door-to-door survey taken recently.

"Each of us has chosen our home for its natural beauty," Dorothy Mills said. "This is where people come to escape the noise and hustle and bustle of the city."

Looking north down Borgstrom Road. If Graymont's proposal goes through, this part of the southeastern U.P. will never be the same. (Photo and caption © and courtesy Steve Garske)

Like Art and Dorothy Mills, Chippewa County resident Kathy English of Trout Lake expresses concerns about loss of limestone that filters their well water and about potential impacts to the land.

English mentioned the rare alvar communities scattered through the area could be destroyed by limestone mining. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, alvar -- a grass- and sedge-dominated community occurring on broad, flat expanses of calcareous bedrock (limestone or dolostone) covered by a thin veneer of mineral soil, with scattered shrubs and sometimes trees -- is classified as an S1 natural community because of its extreme rarity. Alvar communities occur in only three areas of the world: the Baltic region of northern Europe; Counties Clare and Galway of northwest Ireland; and the Great Lakes region south of the Canadian Shield, which includes this eastern area of the Upper Peninsula.****

"We're real concerned about the destruction of our water table -- but we're also concerned about the land, the peace and quiet," English told Keweenaw Now.

Potential blasting for the limestone could occur near the Michigan American Legion Wilwin Lodge in the Trout Lake area, a facility that helps veterans and has a program for those with post-traumatic stress syndrome, English explained, noting her concern that blasting could have negative effects on that program.

This photo shows an autumn 2014 scene on Wilwin Road near the Michigan American Legion Wilwin Lodge, a veterans' facility that could be impacted by potential blasting from limestone mining. (Photo © and courtesy Kathy English)

English said a survey in Trout Lake Township showed 96 percent of those who returned the survey were opposed to the Graymont project. Many retired residents have built nice homes on nearby lakes and they bring support to the community, she noted.

As for the promise of 45 jobs, English is dubious about the local benefit.

"The jobs just aren't going to be there," she said. "They're going to bring people in from the outside."

A second "No Mining" sign on the English family's property is opposite a cabin, right, and a garage that are part of a two-acre parcel recently purchased by Graymont. Kathy English is concerned that the company plans to use the buildings (also including a workshop) for an office and possibly a bunkhouse for non-local workers. (Photo © and courtesy Kathy English)

English notes the main industry of the area is tourism, which would suffer if the limestone project is approved.

"To me it's kind of ludicrous -- all the money that's been spent on the 'Pure Michigan' (tourism) campaign --  and now they're going to destroy it," she said. "The land does not belong to the state or the DNR or the federal government. It's not theirs to sell or destroy. It belongs to the people."

Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK) oppose land sale

In a recent letter to DNR Director Creagh, Linda Rulison, president of FOLK (Friends of the Land of Keweenaw), on behalf of the FOLK Board of Directors, asks Creagh to oppose the proposed Graymont project because it would have too many negative impacts -- both environmental and economic -- and because the state lacks knowledgeable staff and funding to regulate such a project.

"Public need for open lands is in no way diminishing with current rates of population growth," Rulison writes. "Pressure on northern forests will only increase with the exhaustion of available private lands near population centers. The true need we have in Michigan is of acquiring more land through a program of strategic purchases of contiguous areas of public land and closure of roadways. If allowed by you, Graymont's proposal will create in-holdings that will break up contiguous wildlife habitats, and create more disturbed edge effects.

"Sale of public land is furthermore inappropriate, because in principle it must be assumed to be a permanent loss and public control over further development is compromised. There have been too many examples of mining claims being thinly veiled land grabs masking other development interests, as is occurring in the Yellow Dog Plains where the Eagle Mine proposes to further compromise the watershed."

Native American groups say Graymont project would violate treaty rights

In a Feb. 4, 2015, letter to DNR Director Creagh, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) expresses their opposition to Graymont's proposal:

"If approved, the Graymont transaction would set an alarming precedent for yielding massive amounts of public land across the state," the letter states. "Lands dedicated for the public support numerous wildlife, ecological, recreational, tourism, subsistence and cultural values."

The letter also notes the importance of access to public lands for exercising Native American treaty rights, including hunting, fishing and gathering -- which are guaranteed by the Treaty of 1836 for territory that includes the Graymont site.

"This particular treaty was negotiated with the federal government before Michigan received statehood," the letter continues. "Article 6 Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution upholds such treaties as 'the supreme law of the land.'"*****

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians also opposes the Graymont project.

Catherine Hollowell, elected tribal Board of Directors member representing Unit 2, which includes the Rexton / Newberry area, said the Sault Tribe passed a resolution in opposition to Graymont's proposal a year and a half ago.

"We are 100 percent opposed to Graymont's proposal to DNR," Hollowell told Keweenaw Now.

She also mentioned the importance of the 1836 Treaty, which guaranteed the tribe the rights to hunt, fish and gather on undeveloped land that was ceded to the federal government. The area of Graymont's proposed land sale is within the tribe's ceded territory. The state, however, doesn't take those rights into consideration, Hollowell explained.

"We rely on the public land to exercise our treaty rights," she added.

Linda Cobe, a member of the Lac Vieux Desert Tribe who lives in Garnet, near Rexton, is also opposed to the Graymont project.

"I'm against it because it infringes on Native American treaty rights and because of the harm it can do to the environment," Cobe said.

Graymont now claims on their Web site that the "initial phase of the project is expected to create up to 50 direct jobs in local mining and transportation operations, plus up to 100 indirect jobs in the region."******

Graymont most recently revised their application to the DNR in early February.

The DNR held a public meeting in Newberry on Jan. 28, 2015. The DNR presentation at that meeting can be viewed here. It includes maps of the project area and lists DNR concerns, including wetland protection, the royalty rate and local economic benefits.


* Click here to see the Land Transaction Map on Graymont's Rexton Project Web site.

** Click here for the DNR's page of links to documents concerning the Graymont Land Transaction Proposal.

*** You can email comments on the proposal to or mail them to the Roscommon Customer Service Center, ATTN: Kerry Wieber, 8717 N. Roscommon Road, Roscommon, MI 48653.

**** Click here to learn more about alvar communities.

***** Click here for KBIC's Feb. 4, 2015, letter to the DNR.

****** Click here to read Graymont's description of their Rexton Project.

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