The Platte River Controversy
The chain of events which led to the controversy over the mouth of the Platte River, was set in motion during the mid-1960s when thousands of small, shiny fish called alewives began to wash-up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Originally a salt-water fish, the alewife is subject to periodic die-off on the Great Lakes. Such die-offs were extreme during the 1960s. Lakefront property owners either avoided the shoreline because of the stench of decaying fish or they took-on the laborious task of raking the alewife’s into large piles and burning them with kerosene. The Michigan Department of Conservation’s solution was to introduce a predator voracious enough to eliminate the alewives before they could become a nuisance. Pacific Salmon, particularly Coho and Chinook were the answer. Beginning in March of 1966 Coho Salmon fingerlings were annually placed in the upper Platte River at Honor, Michigan. Unlike other fish introduced into the lakes the salmon could not explode out-of-control because it was difficult for them to breed naturally in Michigan streams. More than 10 million salmon fingerlings were introduced into Michigan waters between 1966 and 1970. In 1969, the Department of Conservation opened the Platte River Anadromous Fish Hatchery at Honor. The location of the hatchery determined that the Platte River would be one of the best fishing spots in Michigan when the salmon matured and returned to the river to try and spawn. Beginning in 1967 “Coho fever” swarmed over the mouth of the little Platte River. The Coho planting program was a great success. It helped to stem the tide of dead alewives and it produced an exciting new sports fishing attraction.
The Coho program was undertaken at the same time that the Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore plan was twisting in the congressional wind. The unsightly scene of unplanned development and mobs of fishermen at the Platte helped to convince many Benzie County residents that the lakeshore might be a necessary means to control the pace of change. The need for someone to take firm control was established when seven fishermen participating in the 1967 Coho run drowned in Platte Bay when their boat overturned in heavy seas. National Park Service Director George B. Hartzog agreed with the Michigan Department of Conservation that it was “imperative that a facility be made available to fishermen and boaters.” When the lakeshore was created in 1970, the State of Michigan was granted the right to retain a 300 acre tract near the mouth of the Platte in order to develop facilities to manage the sport fishery. By the time Martinek arrived at the newly created lakeshore the Michigan Waterways Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had developed a $2 million plan to create a major sport fishing marina on the Platte. The river would be straitened and dredged more than a half mile inland and a breakwater would extend 1,000 feet into the lake. The rolling dunes and pine trees at the mouth were to be replaced by a huge paved parking lot.
Environmentalists watched apprehensively but patiently while the harbor plans were being made. They did not want to do anything that would disrupt the coalition in favor of the Sleeping Bear lakeshore bill, so they held their peace until after 1970. Nor was there universal support for the large-scale project within the newly created Department of Natural Resources, which had been formed out of a merger of the Department of Conservation with a number of smaller agencies, including the Michigan Waterways Commission. The staff of the old Conservation Department who opposed the Platte project, however, had to proceed cautiously to avoid setting off a civil war within the newly created agency. Superintendent Martinek also proceeded cautiously. Cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources, which inherited D.H. Day and Benzie state parks, was essential to a smooth transition at Sleeping Bear. The sport fishing and visitor safety issues the harbor proposal sought to address were legitimate concerns for the new lakeshore and had been specifically supported by Director Hartzog. Yet, since the Director had made his comments the lakeshore’s mandate, as reflected in the bill passed by Congress, had changed from being a recreation oriented park to one with a greater emphasis on preservation. The lakeshore’s draft master plan called for the Platte to be managed as a natural area. The Platte River was one of the few natural river mouths on the entire Lake Michigan shore. The action of river current, lake waves, and sand at the Platte was an example in miniature of what the Chicago River and the Kalamazoo River and the Grand River looked like before harbor improvements prepared the way for urban development. The lakeshore had been created in the first place to preserve what was unique and special about the dune country and the Platte River mouth was clearly one of those features. The new superintendent, however, was caught between Director Hartzog’s commitment of the agency to some type of harbor and the congressional mandate to protect the landscape. Little wonder Martinek took a position, which was guarded, but cooperative toward the plans of the Michigan Waterways Commission.
It was the Sierra Club which took the first decisive stand against the Platte River project. While the National Park Service appeared to be waffling on both sides of the issue, the Mackinac Chapter of the Sierra Club, in December 1970, testified before the Michigan Natural Resources Commission that the Platte Harbor proposal threatened the integrity of the new lakeshore. Some of the groups that in the past had been supporters of a strong Sleeping Bear park showed much less resolve. The Michigan United Conservation Clubs was initially split among those who saw the harbor as a boon to sportsmen and those who saw it as an environmental disaster. Ironically, the Sierra Club found itself in unintended alliance with many of the same people who had opposed the creation of the lakeshore and who now wanted to control its development. In June 1971, John Stanz, a Leelanau County representative on the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore Advisory Commission pointedly challenged his fellow commission members to “stand up for something.” Those members representing the Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Waterways Commission must have squirmed in their seats when he said “if we’re going to have a National Park, let’s have a National Park.” What he did not understand was how “the first thing you are going to do is turn around and make a development in the heart of it.” 
The hopeless division over the Platte River harbor between overlapping state and federal agencies made a decisive stand by the National Park Service all the more important to the resolution of the controversy. State officials hoped that the National Park Service, with its national prestige in recreation planning would serve as a “catalyst” to bring the disparate interest groups--boaters, fishermen, and environmentalists--together. A hearing by Michigan’s Environmental Quality Council blasted the harbor plan and chided the National Park Service’s “demonstrated evasiveness, fluctuating thought of mind, timidity of public reaction and lack of dedication to the current concept at this public meeting.” In June 1971, Governor William G. Milliken, who had serious reservations concerning the harbor, wrote to Secretary of the Interior Rogers B. Morton requesting that the park service take a clear stand, for or against the Platte project. Northeast Regional Director Chester L. Brooks drafted a response for the Secretary which expressed the sentiment that it would be “regrettable” to destroy the natural mouth of the Platte when a less sensitive site could be selected in Good Harbor or Sleeping Bear bays. This tepid response did allow Superintendent Martinek to formally express reservations regarding the proposed harbor. Following Martinek’s objections to the waterways commission plan, the focus temporarily shifted to the study of an alternate Platte Bay site, away from the mouth of the river. That seemed to be the solution to a controversy that had already dragged on for four years.
But the Platte harbor plan would simply not go away. Keith E. Wilson, the Director of the Waterways Commission, was an absolute bulldog when it came to the project. The opposition of the Secretary of the Interior and the Governor of Michigan did not deter him. In July 1973, he advised the Michigan Natural Resources Commission that after studying alternate sites his engineers concluded that they must “either build the harbor and marina in the mouth of the Platte or not build it at all.” There was no support from the Washington, D.C. office of the park service for stoping the project. The Acting Director, Raymond L. Freeman warned the Northeast Regional Office that while the agency was not pleased with the harbor proposal, there would be no official action against it, “the State has decisions to make, and that if the State decides to complete its development at the site we will accept it.” On the local level, however, the need for park service leadership was acute. The reaction of Noble Travis, an Advisory Commission member from Leland, was typical of many people involved with the Sleeping Bear project. “Let’s stop piddling around with this Platte River harbor thing…We have already gone on record as opposing it at the mouth of the Platte.”
The Platte River harbor controversy was a case study of the way issues became entwined and positions entrenched in the Sleeping Bear Country. At its heart it was a conflict between the old style of conservation based on outdoor sports and the new environmentalism focused on slow growth and ecological quality. Either the National Park Service or the Department of Natural Resources could have completely killed the ill-advised scheme. The environmental review process and the waterways commission’s need for federal funds gave the park service a virtual veto, even if it did not control all the land at the mouth of the river; nor was the Department of Natural Resources going to stand up to Governor Milliken’s opposition. Yet, both agencies were also on the record as in favor of some type of facility for public safety and to provide access to the lakeshore’s island units. The 1969 Master Plan for the lakeshore called for a marina/boat launch facility near or within the park. Before the creation of the lakeshore the commercial boats that took visitors and mail to North and South Manitou were based in Leland harbor. But at a public meeting in the summer of 1971 residents of Leland “emphatically” made it clear that they did not want the congestion the ferry service would bring to their town. Wilson and the waterways commission were also in conflict with the village of Leland. In 1969, the waterways commission expanded Leland’s little river mouth port into a formal harbor of refuge by adding a large stone breakwater. Over the years they added a paved parking lot and a boat ramp for sport fishermen. By the time the Platte River controversy was reaching its climax, a number of Leland residents took the waterways commission to court to stop any further expansion of the Leland harbor. Faced with this road block Keith Wilson’s temporary stop-gap was to plan a boat launch at Good Harbor Bay, an area the park service had planned as a roadless, walk-in beach. The Platte River issue drove the Leland harbor issue, and vice versa. The result was probably the best that could be expected, nothing was done at Platte River, within the lakeshore, or in Leland.
The Michigan Waterways Commission was loathe to give up the ghost of the Platte marina and their plans continued to be debated in public into the mid-1970s. Long before that, however, Superintendent Martinek and the Department of Conservation had worked out a temporary management solution to the issues at the Platte. A drag-line was brought in each fall during the salmon run to keep the mouth of the Platte deep enough for the launching of small fishing boats. Toilet facilities and parking conditions were gradually improved by the National Park Service and through cooperation between the state and township authorities. The National Park Service bought out and closed a restaurant, motel, and hot dog stand located on lakeshore lands adjacent to the Platte. The adhoc solution became permanent when “Coho fever” slackened in the 1980s. Salmon and Steelhead runs became popular all along the Lake Michigan shore as the hatcheries expanded their release locations. Although the mouth of the Platte remained one of the busiest locations in the lakeshore, it was also one of the most beautiful.
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