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Stewards of the Garden?

Lutherans Betray Michigan’s Loon Lake Wetlands for Pieces of Silver

by MICHAEL DONNELLY

In the early 1980s, Michigan YMCA Camp Mahn-go-tah-see had run up against hard times. Though thousands of youth attended Summer Camp there since the 1930s, kid camps everywhere were getting harder and harder to maintain as camper numbers dropped off. Late 20th Century children had many more options than former campers; from electronic games, year round sports, family vacations, etc. And, many parents had become more aware of and more leery of abuse and sought to keep a tighter rein on where their children spent their time.

Into the breach came the Lutheran Church. An insider deal was hatched and the church took over the camp with 248 acres, dozens of buildings and over a mile of pristine shoreline on Loon Lake — all for agreeing to take over the camp’s $220,000 debt. The church also had a hard time maintaining it as a kid camp. They kept the High School band camps that had been held there for decades. And, the annual Audubon bird count retreats continued. But, a regular Summer Camp program slowly died off.

Soon, the Lutherans began a focus on adult and family retreats and changed the name to the Loon Lake Lutheran Retreat Center. This led to plans to remove the old camper buildings and replace them with modern condo-style accommodations. Consultants were hired and plans proffered. A garish symbolic lighthouse was planned for a knoll above the lake. Another plan was to outright sell the camp to developers and use the proceeds to fund Lutheran college chapels.

Homer and Dorothy Roberts gave their lives to the camp. Homer, founder of Detroit Audubon and its president for 50 years and one of the founders of Outdoor School, served in many capacities at the camp; primarily as long-time Nature Director. Homer, along with ally Rachel Carson and others, is given much credit for the ban on DDT and the resultant rebounding of eagle populations in Michigan and elsewhere. In the 1940s, he was the first to draw attention to the plight of the endangered Kirtland’s warbler and was instrumental in efforts to protect the songbird’s nesting habitat, which is limited to a twenty mile radius area of the Huron National Forest that abuts the camp to the north. The indispensable Dot served as Crafts Director. In 1964, they bought the adjacent 8.5 acres just to the south of the camp and lived there until retiring at 90 and 86 and moving to Oregon to be near family. With Homer and Dot’s persistence, in 1964, Camp Mahn-go-tah-see became the first official private Nature Preserve in the state.

My own family has had a place on Loon Lake adjacent to the Roberts since 1955. In 2005, we bought the Roberts’ Harvest Hill place with the intent (since carried out) of setting aside 7 acres as protected habitat, including the Harvest Hill part of the swamp and shoreline.

This year, the Lutherans cut another sweetheart deal. They were able to get a land use change through the local Township Board of Supervisors (a very powerful part of the rural oligarchy in Michigan). This change has seen the Lutherans survey and carve out four luxury lots on 7.67 acres adjacent to Harvest Hill. The lots are now on the market, selling for between $139,000 and $279,000 — a total of $844,000. All are marketed as waterfront lots. The sale proceeds presumably would go to the new condo plan. The lot development is also a test case for opening up parts of the rest of the camp’s mile of lakeshore to more lots.

However, there is a pristine wetlands/swamp between the highway and the lakeshore. And, the entire area is covered in large trees, some of them very rare Lower Peninsula old growth as they survived the logging era by being in and around the wetlands. As no logging has occurred since the late 1870s, the entire forest is mature by any standard. Plans call for access roads and house sites to be carved out of the forest. No mention is made of just how these new homeowners will deal with the swamp to actually reach the lakefront. The Township has allowed the dredging of two swamps on the lake already; leading to fetid backwaters with houses and septic tanks; and lined with metal piles driven into the water’s edge.

The Plainfield Township Supervisors who approved the zoning change have a decided conflict of interest. The Lutherans sweetened the deal by offering to deed 12.91 acres adjacent to the four lots to the Township; including a boat launch, lakeshore and access road. The township already has a 200-acre park at the other end of Loon Lake with 150 feet of waterfront and a boat launch at yet another spot on the lake.

In addition, my deceased father, Dr. Charles Donnelly, Homer Roberts and Roberts’ son Bob spent countless hours negotiating with the Lutherans on the very issue of preservation of the wetlands/swamp. We offered to donate our acreage and so did the Roberts to the Michigan Nature Association if the Lutherans would donate theirs for a new Preserve. We offered to buy the area from the camp and donate it. Despite all this effort, no one ever contacted us about this development. And, as the sole adjacent landowner, we were given no notice of any proposed Land Use designation change from the Township. (They certainly know how to contact us with property tax bills.)

We, as adjacent landowners, stand to gain financially should we be willing to subdivide and sell our own land at such inflated prices. We and all the other long-time Loon Lake cottage owners also stand to lose; as revaluation of the area at these prices would drive up property tax bills substantially.

This land at risk is a heron rookery. It is habitat for bitterns, bald eagles, turtles, amphibiansit is a nursery for small fish. And, it serves as a major filtration system for 440-acre Loon Lake; which due to the undeveloped mile of camp shoreline and the fact that many homeowners have not cut the hillsides between their cottages and the lakeshore is one of the most intact inland lakes in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula; maybe the most.

I owe my own environmental awareness to Homer Roberts. I was once his counselor assistant at the camp as a teen in the 1960s. As an adult, I have been involved in major efforts to protect wild lands in the Pacific Northwest and am a founder of the Ancient Forest protection movement; also the founder of two private preserves in Oregon and Washington. My dedication to Nature traces back to days spent in and around the Loon Lake swamp with Homer Roberts. This proposal breaks my, my siblings’, cousins’ and childhood friends’ hearts.

It cannot go forward. Please join our effort to roll back this luxury development and secure permanent protection for this priceless remnant ecosystem.

Contact: Loon Lake Lutheran Retreat Center at: Toll Free: 877-264-1004, Fax: 989-728-5161
E-mail: LLLRC@centurytel.net Box 126, Hale, MI 48739

MICHAEL DONNELLY can be contacted at pahtoo@aol.com or (503) 581-2616