Reflecting upon the landscape: the soft side, the hard side

by Jon Saari

The hard side is born of anxiety over unpredictable change and fear of loss. For five years citizens have been faced with a prospective new wave of sulfide mining. What was “acid mine drainage” and who was Rio Tinto? New activists came forward, new citizen groups proliferated and a new state law had to be written.
The permitting process taught hundreds how to read technical and legal documents; many took the difficult step of speaking out at public meetings, from Lansing to Humboldt and Big Bay.
The permits themselves still are being tested before judges who do not presume that the highest and best usage of our land is the economic exploitation of its mineral resources, and who can weigh the risks to water, air and animals, including two-legged humans. The hard side gives people headaches and bad dreams, but these are struggles that need to be fought.
The soft side is the knowledge and appreciation we have for the place we call home. It is observing the birds in winter—only inches away—at the Buckhorn Lodge above Otter Lake, after a long ski at nearby Valley Spur. It is fishing, in winter or summer, in the dark waters of a remote lake or the Greenwood Reservoir.
It is hiking the Trap Hills or the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, both accessible along the North Country Trail. It is watching a feeding moose from your canoe or kayak, or even seeing one wander into town or camp to the mutual surprise of all parties.
We prize the closeness of nature in the U.P., which does not have the grandeur and sublimity of the West, but the familiarity of camp and farm, with its two-track roads and friendly clearings in the woods. The soft side undergirds our lives here in the U.P. and indeed is the reason many of us came and most of us stay.
The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition has been appreciating, and fighting for, the special environmental qualities of the U.P. for thirty-three years. In that span of time we have had more than 100 activists as board members, and fought many different battles, from nuclear waste dumps to federal wilderness designations.
We have learned it is very easy to burn out board members if we only focus on the hard side, the watchdog role to government and business.
It is the soft side, captured so well by artists and naturalists, that sustains long-term conservation and activism.
With this insight, the UPEC Board created the travelling art show “Celebration of the U.P. as Home” in 2007-08 and now has fashioned the first U.P. Celebration at the Three Corners, which is to happen in Marquette on March 28.
We have asked a dozen knowledgeable residents what it is about the U.P. that makes their work and hobbies special.
What is special for Karl Bohnak about being a weatherman in the U.P.? What is special for Scot Stewart about being a birder in the U.P.? For Nita Engle about being a watercolorist? For a kayaker? (Sam Crowley) A spiritual leader? (Earl Meshigaud) A historian? (Russell Magnaghi) A hiker? (Eric Hansen, Doug Welker and Lorana Jinkerson) A filmmaker? (George Desort and Rolf Peterson) A National Park Superintendent? (Jim Northup)
At 3:00 p.m., when the talks are all finished, a panel will address the question of the best and highest uses of the U.P. landscape. How do we identify the special places? What types of protections exist, and are they adequate and/or optimal? Are protected lands part of the answer for economically struggling communities? How do the problems and opportunities differ between public lands (national and state forests, parks and refuges) and private lands (industrial forest lands and small independent landowners)?
Helping us gain perspective will be Dave Dempsey (Michigan environmental historian), Northup (Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore superintendent), Tina Hall (director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan), Jan Schultz (botanist with the District Nine National Forest Service in Milwaukee) and Marvin Roberson (forest ecologist for the Sierra Club).
Rounding out the day will be a reception at the Federated Women’s Clubhouse at 5:00 p.m. Rub shoulders with the speakers, and learn more about one special “Yooper Elder,” wildlife biologist Bill Robinson, who taught for decades at NMU, researched wolves and woodcock and was a founding member of UPEC in 1975. The tribute for Robinson, now institutionalized with severe memory problems, will begin at 5:30 p.m. His friends and colleagues especially are invited to attend.
More complete information about the U.P. Celebration at the Three Corners is available at

— Jon Saari

Editor’s Note: Saari is the president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition.

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