A proposed 253 square-mile expansion of the Camp Grayling base in the northern Lower Peninsula has garnered significant pushback from environmental groups and at least one Michigan environmental official. Opponents are worried that insufficient thought and planning has gone into the proposal and that it could send additional pollution into the scenic Au Sable and Manistee Rivers.
The expansion, which the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced in June, would more than double the size of the Michigan Army National Guard base, something Guard officials say is necessary to train for cyber, electronic and space warfare.
Yet, PFAS contamination at the decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force base near Oscoda, as well as Camp Grayling’s own issues with the so-called “forever chemicals,” make some residents wary that the expansion could bring more problems to the area.
And the move comes at the same time as Guard is requesting to significantly expand the air space it operates in over northern Michigan and the Thumb, a proposal that has also generated a significant public outcry.
“There’s a certain trust factor with the National Guard that’s really been broken,” Joe Hemming, president of the conservation group Anglers of the Au Sable, told Planet Detroit.
PFAS poses a special risk to anglers and communities that benefit from fishing and tourism. A recent report shows that eating a single freshwater fish can deliver as many of the chemicals as drinking contaminated water for a month.
Hemming is also concerned that access to the rivers could be impaired by Guard activity or that noise, warfare training, and other disruptions could hurt people and wildlife. Such disturbances could also affect the insects’ hatches and reliable flows, making the Manistee and Au Sable attractive to anglers.
Dissent has come from within government agencies as well. On December 22, 2022, Randall Rothe, head of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s (EGLE) Gaylord office, wrote a letter to Bonnie Packer, PFAS program manager for the Army National Guard’s Cleanup and Restoration Branch, saying state officials should reject the expansion proposal on account of the Guard’s “inability to take timely action to investigate, mitigate, and remediate significant areas of contamination at Camp Grayling.”
EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid said Rothe’s letter doesn’t represent an official position the agency.
Several local governments have also expressed opposition to the expansion.
“Public land is for the citizens of our state. Tens of thousands come to these areas to recreate,” said Jim Knight, a Bear Lake Township Trustee. Knight and Hemming expressed support for the Guard, but questioned its stewardship of the current base, which is already the nation’s largest National Guard training facility.
It’s also unclear why the Guard is pursuing such a large expansion. The Anglers of the Au Sable argue that the move is motivated by a desire to sublease land to private industry for testing military technologies rather than any specific need on the part of the Guard.
“The plan is to turn the public land surrounding Grayling, MI, and the restricted airspace above it into a massive, nationally recognized area to test and develop new products, weapons, and technologies,” the group wrote.
This conclusion is supported by a July article in D Business magazine, where Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers refers to the Guard’s various installations in Michigan as a “brand,” offering services “to the Michigan market and the national market as a resource that can be harvested.” Col. Scot Meyers, commander for Camp Grayling, adds that the base can offer facilities to local and national companies at rates that are “disgustingly inexpensive.”
But for the Guard to expand Camp Grayling and potentially sell its services to industry, Hemming says that the DNR must determine whether it has the statutory authority to approve the expansion. If they decide to move forward, it could lead to litigation from Anglers of the Au Sable or others.
The proposal’s fate may ultimately lie with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who appoints the DNR’s director and holds sway over such decisions.
“If she decides this expansion should go forward, it’s going to be an incredibly unpopular decision in northern Michigan,” he said. “I’m just not sure whether Governor Whitmer truly realizes that.”