By Jeff Alexander/Bridge Magazine contributor
Margaret Minerick’s family has survived many challenges over the past four decades as they built a large and successful timber business in the Upper Peninsula community of Sagola.
Today, Minerick Logging and its sister company, Sagola Hardwoods, employ more than 100 workers in the western U.P.
But Minerick, who is president of Sagola Hardwoods, fears a 2010 federal court ruling made nearly 2,000 miles away could paralyze Michigan’s $12 billion forest products industry and devastate her family’s business.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in an Oregon case in 2010 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must regulate the muddy water that drains off forest roads as an industrial pollutant. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not overturn the appellate ruling and the EPA applies the new regulatory standard nationwide, all loggers could be required to obtain federal “discharge permits” for every bridge and culvert installed on forest roads.
“Any time you’re talking about more regulations, you’re looking at spending more dollars,” Minerick said. “These regulations would also slow us down … We can’t afford to wait a month to get into a timber sale.”
Environmental groups said the court ruling would protect lakes and streams from harmful sediment that can foul the water, bury fish spawning beds and suffocate aquatic life.
Industry officials said it would force Michigan loggers to apply for up to 1,500 permits annually to install culverts and bridges on unpaved logging roads.
“It would shut down the timber industry in Michigan,” said Scott Robbins, director of sustainable forestry and public affairs for the Michigan Forest Products Council.
The court’s decision reversed 35 years of federal regulations. Currently, muddy runoff from logging roads is regulated as nonpoint, or diffuse, pollution; companies don’t need a discharge permit for that type of runoff.
Minerick said the court ruling could force her family’s company to apply for as many as 30 pollution discharge permits annually in order to install culverts where forest roads cross streams.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was one of 26 state attorneys general who signed a court brief opposing the federal court ruling.
The Michigan Legislature also passed a resolution urging Congress to regulate runoff from forest roads as nonpoint source pollution, which would allow the less stringent regulations to remain in place.
Michigan, like many other states, currently uses voluntary guidelines known as “best management practices” to control stormwater runoff on logging roads.
Logging firms follow best management practices in order to obtain certification as sustainable timber operations. Many companies that buy large quantities of wood or paper will only do business with certified logging operations, said Dennis Nezich, who runs the DNR’s forest certification program.
State officials said Michigan’s timber industry has cleaned up its act over the past 25 years.
“The industry has made a major effort to improve its operations,” said Steve Casey, the U.P. district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division. “I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on runoff from forest roads.”
Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist with the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, said logging operations here generate less muddy runoff than those in western states, where mountainous terrain creates ideal conditions for stormwater runoff.
“In Michigan it’s how the forests are managed, not the timber harvesting operations, that are the biggest problem,” Roberson said. “Do logging operations here frequently cause mudslides into rivers? No, they don’t,” Roberson said. “But they do manage for species like aspen, which has given us a boatload more deer than we can handle.”
State experts worry about wetlands loophole
State officials said the federal court ruling would do nothing to close a regulatory loophole that allows unscrupulous loggers and developers to abuse wetlands in Michigan.
Logging roads are currently exempt from state and federal wetland protection regulations, even though roads and culverts can cause serious problems in marshy areas, said Todd Losee, a wetlands specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Wetlands provide fish and wildlife habitat and filter pollutants out of water.
Losee said most of the large logging firms in Michigan do a good job of voluntarily keeping forest roads from damaging wetlands. But he said small logging companies and land developers routinely take advantage of the wetland regulations loophole.
“In the U.P., there are a lot of guys filling in wetlands for development purposes and calling those roads forest roads (to dodge regulations),” Losee said. “We’re seeing significant impacts; my staff is finding one site per week where a wetland is being impacted by unauthorized forest roads.”
Losee said Michigan should close the forest road loophole in the state’s wetland protection statute.
“If someone is building a road through a wetland without a permit,” Losee said, “chances are they’re not doing it right.”
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC, as well as a writer and media consultant at the National Wildlife Federation. He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.