Rowdy rivers action plan forthcoming

By Sheri McWhirter
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

CADILLAC — Memorial Day weekend is here and that means the launch of the 2019 boating season.

It also means recommendations should be imminent from a community working group established by the Huron-Manistee National Forest to determine how to make river activity safer and less rambunctious, all in lieu of an outright ban on alcohol along stretches of the AuSable, Manistee and Pine rivers. The group aimed to announce their suggestions by this holiday weekend which is often considered the start to the summer season, when rowdy activity frequently is reported on the rivers in the national forest.

“The working group is finalizing its action plan for the summer and intends to make a public announcement soon,” said Nate Peeters, public affairs officer for the national forest.

Peeters said the action plan will focus on community engagement efforts, such as educating the public about safety and etiquette, as well as empowering visitors to be good river stewards.

In February, the U.S. Forest Service announced an alcohol ban along certain stretches of the three rivers. Overwhelming public backlash prompted the federal agency to walk back the alcohol ban — at least until next year — and in the meantime establish the community working group to come up with alternate solutions.

“It’s going fine. There are some good ideas going,” said Tracie Lord, president of Traverse Area Paddle Club, who participated in the group.

Lord said the process has been fairly moderated and good compromises were made.

Among ideas floated early in the process were: a public outreach campaign; presence of officials at boat launches on busy weekends; encouraged of the use of mesh trash bags tied to canoes, kayaks or tubes to minimize litter; river etiquette education among livery customers that may include an instructional video; targeted enforcement action against those engaged in risky or lewd behavior; and more.

Lord said she worries there will always be the negative element of “hard-core partiers” who engage in risky behavior and endanger both themselves and others on the public waterways. The action plan is aimed at those who can be convinced to behave properly, she said.

“I do think it will be effective for some,” Lord said.

Officials have reported a type of carnival atmosphere that heightens safety risks on the rivers, especially on the Pine River, during busy summer weekends. Drunken, lewd behavior and dangerous horseplay has been reported.

Cheryl Matson, who co-owns Matson’s Big Manistee River Campground in Manistee, is another member of the working group. She said it’s been a very diverse group that well represents all aspects of the issue, and everyone agrees it’s important to sustain the rivers’ beauty and allow all users to enjoy the natural resource.

The key is keeping the rivers clean and safe, Matson said, which will heavily depend on a successful community education campaign.

“I’m very hopeful there will be a positive impact,” she said.

The working group is expected to continue to communicate through the summer months as activity is monitored, Matson said, then gather again in the autumn to revisit the situation and determine how well their action plan worked.

Should the working group’s action plan be ineffective at addressing persistent public safety issues and protecting natural resources, national forest officials said they may re-institute the alcohol ban for the 2020 season, from late May through early September.

The stretches of river at issue include: the Manistee River between Tippy Dam and the national forests’ boundary at Camp Road in Manistee County; the Pine River between Elm Flats and Low Bridge in Lake, Manistee and Wexford counties; and, the AuSable River between Mio Dam Pond and 4001 Canoe Landing in Alcona and Oscoda counties.

Private lands, developed campgrounds and designated campsites within those river corridors would not be affected by the alcohol closure order. Violation of the order, if re-implemented next year, would be punishable by a maximum $5,000 fine and up to six months behind bars.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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