U.P. environmental groups join forces

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition and Save the Wild U.P. have joined forces to help ensure places like the one pictured here stay wild and stay beautiful. (Photo courtesy of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition)

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition and Save the Wild U.P. have joined forces to help ensure places like the one pictured here stay wild and stay beautiful. (Photo courtesy of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition)

by Erin Gaura

The Upper Peninsula is famed for its natural environment, carved into a corner of three Great Lakes and covered by the North Woods. For the most part, the U.P.’s 300,000 residents live in a number of small towns peppering the land, remnants of the mining industry that prompted settling in the area in the mid-19th century. Recently, two grassroots organizations dedicated to the preservation of the U.P.’s untamed land have combined to create a stronger, more expansive environmental alliance.

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC) and Save the Wild U.P. (SWUP) have officially begun a merger which will take effect January 1. SWUP will become the Mining Action Group as a part of UPEC, which will continue its own work in environmental preservation and education. As a result of the merger, SWUP President Kathleen Heideman and Executive Director Alexandra Maxwell will become board members of UPEC, bringing SWUP activism to the coalition.

The announcement was first made at a UPEC event at the Peter White Camp in Deerton, where the two organizations promoted their alliance with a special appearance of SWUP board member Chip Truscon as Peter White.

“My spirit soars like an eagle knowing that guardians of our beautiful natural heritage, Save the Wild U.P. and the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition, have linked arms. This union reflects my belief that community is not an individual effort, but the work of many,” he said, as Peter White.

“UPEC, as an organization, was reinvigorated this spring and we wanted to broaden our reach from the Keweenaw and Marquette counties to become a stronger U.P.-wide group,” UPEC President Horst Schmidt said. “And now we have the support of another extremely dedicated group of people.”

Houghton-based UPEC hopes the contributions of SWUP, a Marquette area group, will strengthen its effectiveness.

“Our board reflects U.P. geography. We’ve got members in towns all across the area and I love it because it contributes to my personal goal of extending our influence over the entire U.P.,” Schmidt said.

The idea for the merger was brought up in June, when UPEC was approached by SWUP after facing challenges with fundraising. It was facilitated by Jon Saari, current treasurer and former president of UPEC and vice president of SWUP. As a result of the union, SWUP will receive funding assistance from UPEC, but will remain largely autonomous and still operate as mining industry watchdog in the U.P.

As the first nonprofit group dedicated exclusively to environmental matters in the U.P., UPEC has been successful in preserving natural land as well as preventing and reversing damage done by industry since its ratification as a nonprofit in 1976. In the decades since, projects organized by UPEC have led to the creation of nine federal wilderness areas in Upper Michigan and prevention of the passage of a proposal that would have created a nuclear waste dump in the U.P. UPEC also aided in the development plans for Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, among other work.

SWUP’s mission has taken a more direct focus on the effects of sulfide mining on the environment. Since 2004, it has fought the expansion of the Eagle Mine in Marquette County and has worked with allied organizations in Minnesota and Wisconsin in order to protect local communities as well as the environment. Much of SWUP’s success stems from its close relationship with the local community through encouraging participation, introducing the public to protected land and initiating a fellowship program for college students.

“It’s going to make our organization more directed in terms of what we want to accomplish,” Schmidt said, speaking of SWUP’s tailored expertise on responsible mining and permitting.

Board members from both groups expressed a high level of enthusiasm for the future of the merge.

“We’re better when we work together, and there are so many issues that we’re facing in the Upper Peninsula regarding clean water and the environment,” Heideman said at the first joint board meeting, held by UPEC at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette. “We’re all really excited about it.”

Though the merger has been announced, work remains to be done to finalize the process.

“There are a number of steps to take in order to make this real. We have to organize it financially and legally, but the board members are willing to put in all the necessary time and effort,” Schmidt said. “We’re going to become one voice for the environment in the U.P., and it starts with the togetherness of working to bring this merger to life.”

Moving forward, UPEC will carry on its work with educational promotion, grant programs and communication with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in order to keep the U.P. green. However, it will soon have the expertise of the SWUP Mining Action Group for work on “legacy cleanups,” or reversing damage done by mines from 1870 to 1970, when mining was taking place across the U.P.

UPEC encourages anyone interested in protecting the U.P. wilderness for future generations to become a new member or volunteer through the organization.

Visit upenvironment.org for more information on UPEC, and savethewildup.org for information on that organization.

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