Notes from the North Country, by Dennis Mapes

The most beautiful place in the world isn’t far from my house—it’s the magical Yellow Dog Plains. Wilderness settings like Silver Lake and pristine rivers such as the Salmon-Trout, Cedar, Big Pup, Voelker’s (named after Upper Michigan’s famous author John Voelker) and the incomparable Yellow Dog flow from cold springs in this remote country.
They are unpolluted benchmark rivers—fragile trout streams of the highest caliber, nestled in nearly 600,000 acres of Michigan’s last wilderness. In this river country, I have caught brook trout more than twenty inches long.
The gateway to all this is the historic Old Iron Bridge on CR-510 near Marquette. Placed there in 1921, the narrow bridge has a load limit of forty tons, which allows those interested in a wilderness experience to cross, while holding back the heavy haulers—those bent on exploitation.
The Marquette County Road Commission has big plans for progress by planning a huge multimillion-dollar bridge next to the old one to serve the “motoring public.” They are telling me I must sell them my land for the new bridge and that I am the last holdout. They had four plans to choose from for bridge construction and location, but chose the one that crosses my land. They have begun eminent domain proceeding against me to take it from me.
In the thirty-two years I have lived nearby, I have never once seen anyone paint, maintain or repair the bridge.
Besides the beautiful mature hardwood and pine forests, the rivers and the lakes in the Plains, there are elongated masses of high-grade nickel, called “magma pipes” by geologists. They originate deep in the earth, are mixed with sulfides and project upward close to the surface. When mined and wet, the sulfides have the potential of causing severe environmental damage, as they have elsewhere.
Nickel is among the world’s fastest growing commodities, now selling for $50,000 per ton (Northern Sudbury; Bloomberg). Somehow, foreign mining companies have been able to purchase long-term leases on the mineral rights for very little money and are preparing to mine the ore. Their service vehicles and massive ore haulers likely will either cross the new CR-510 bridge or travel through quiet Marquette to the east.
I believe much of the nickel is destined for China (Interfax China Commodities Daily). China has a voracious appetite for nickel because when properly combined with steel, it becomes high-quality stainless steel. In fact, China’s crude steel capacity has surpassed that of Japan, the United States, the Republic of Korea and Russia combined (
Seventy percent of global nickel goes to make stainless steel (Northern Sudbury). Stainless steel is used in their “Building New Countryside” program and in their military. The material is used to make submarines, missiles and tanks. China has the world’s largest standing army at 2.5 million strong that is poised to keep Taiwan from becoming an independent nation (BBCNews).
Nickel was so important to our military in 1942 that it was taken from our five-cent piece and a silver substitute was added. Because concentrations of nickel close to the earth’s surface are quite rare, there are no dedicated nickel mines in the United States. That’s right—we are 100-percent dependent on foreign countries. Perhaps we should bank the nickel and leave it in the ground, or at least until the technology advances and it can be done safely.
Most of the land in the Yellow Dog Plains is open to the public. It took an eternity to create this river country, but it could be lost in less than a generation.
—Dennis Mapes, Negaunee Township

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