Central Northern Michigan is the perfect place to be outside with its pristine rivers and vast undeveloped forests. The irony is, it’s also the perfect place to train modern soldiers and for Camp Grayling’s expansion.
By Michael Livingston
This article was originally published in the Michigan Out-of-Doors Winter 2022 print edition. You can subscribe to the 100-page, perfect bound print magazine by clicking here.
In the heart of Northern Michigan, there’s a huge concentration of public land. Trout-filled rivers, winding two-tracks and trails ― when you’re driving along it can sometimes feel like an elven forest out of Lord of the Rings.
Residents say it’s the reason why they live here ― to hunt, fish, hike and simply enjoy the outdoors.
The irony is, it’s also the perfect place to train a U.S. soldier. The open land and dense forests are perfect for simulating combat and training for things like artillery strikes and cyber warfare.
That’s what the Michigan National Guard has done here for decades. It’s based at Camp Grayling in Crawford County ― the largest National Guard training facility in the country.
Back in May, the guard announced it wanted to more than double the size of the training grounds by leasing about 250 square miles of public land from the state.
Many residents say they distrust the Guard and think the expansion will threaten their way of life.
The Guard and the Department of Natural Resources have held public meetings all over the region since the proposal was put forth with the goal of explaining to residents what the expansion would mean for them.
A crowd of residents got particularly heated at a meeting in Bear Lake township in Kalkaska on July 7 ― literally and figuratively.
About 100 people packed into the tiny hall with no air conditioning.
Many raised concerns over property values dropping if the guard was training near their properties. Others claimed a slippery slope.
“These things start gaining momentum, and gaining momentum, and gaining momentum,” resident Montey Bolis said. “And pretty soon it doesn’t matter what a wildlife biologist says, or what a fisheries biologist says or what we say.”
The crowd, made up of hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts worried the Guard would restrict access to the land they’ve been able to peacefully use for decades. The expansion areas include parts of Kakaska, Rosscommon and Otsego counties.
The crowds have taken to Facebook to express their disapproval. The private group “Camp Grayling Expansion” has garnered over 5,000 followers.
It’s not that people are against the military around here. Camp Grayling has been a part of the community for over 100 years. People take pride in it. Many of them are veterans or know someone who serves.
But, if the military starts training on more land, many residents ― like Jim Knight ― worry the region could lose its main attractions.
“What’s at stake, is what we came here for, and worked our whole lives for, to be here ― and to have this peace and quiet,” he said. “It’s like a gun range moving into somebody’s place ― they’re the new neighbor, there’s a gun range now next to you.”
The Guard’s view
Camp Grayling is also known as the National All Domain Warfighting Center. Its semi-annual Northern Strike exercise brings in servicemen and servicewomen from around the country and the world.
This past Northern Strike saw thousands of participants from 19 states and several allied countries.
Col. Scott Meyers is the garrison commander of Camp Grayling. He said the land in Central Northern Michigan is unique because of its four-seasons capabilities. The guard is able to train troops to fight in all domains ― land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.
He said the Guard needs space for certain cyber-warfare exercises it cannot do on the current Camp Grayling footprint ― things like open-air jamming of radar and GPS systems.
This is what the military uses to mess with enemy communications. And if they’re too close to the current footprint, Meyers said they could mess up their own communications.
What will the expansion look like?
“Picture tents with camo netting over the tops of them, troops walking through the woods just like a nature walk but carrying weapons, wearing camouflage uniforms, driving their vehicles to the next location and a couple days later and doing it again,” Meyers said. “Not expanding any tank trails, not expanding any of those things, I have plenty of space for those.”
The expansion agreement said the DNR would still own the land. Residents can continue to use it most of the time. The Guard would have to get approval from the state before fencing off land for training exercises, including during prime hunting season.
Unlike the exercises during Northern Strike, where artillery fire can be heard for miles around, the Guard would not be able to fire off live rounds or explosives.
Meyers said he sees the expansion as a matter of national security.
“Years ago, I received a quote, ‘the blood of an untrained soldier forever stains their leaders’ hands.’ Meaning if we’re not prepared, if we’re not preparing those soldiers for those conditions they could potentially face as a community, we’re to blame,” he said.
History of distrust
Many residents aren’t convinced, including Jim Knight.
“At this point, Meyers can say anything, and I don’t really think I can believe anything he says right now,” he said.
Many residents are suspicious when they hear the guard’s talking points. And there have been some inconsistencies.
Meyers said at one public meeting that noise levels wouldn’t increase, but at a different meeting he said troops would sometimes fire off blank rounds and fly drones.
Many are also worried that the land could be marketed to the private sector such as military contractors for testing and training exercises ― something the camp has ramped up in recent years.
In an interview with DBuisness Magazine, Meyers said the resources were “disgustingly inexpensive,” noting that one industry partner was able to use 3,000 acres for just $150 per day.
Meyers initially said that wouldn’t happen on the proposed land. He told 9&10 News that he doesn’t plan to have contractors on, but he also said he wouldn’t rule it out. When Points North asked him, he said as far as research and experimentation is concerned, industry partners don’t have any interest.
“If me and you have an agreement, and I’m going to do something, and you agree to it, and then I start changing it. That’s not good,” resident Gene
Desjardins said. “I get alarmed when people change stuff, when people make different comments that we are supposed to rely on as fact.”
The distrust stems even further back.
The Guard has tried to expand a handful of times, most recently in 2014. But it was squashed by conservation groups who said the Guard wasn’t being transparent.
But the big moment came when toxic chemicals called PFAs were found in nearby Lake Margrethe in 2019. Jackie Krause and her son Kevin are still dealing with the consequences at her house on the lakeshore.
Her kitchen sink has two taps ― one that’s drinkable, the other infected with harmful chemicals. Underneath, a filter system with activated charcoal keeps the smaller tap drinkable. It’s the only place in the house where the water is safe to drink.
PFAS have been linked to harmful health effects. They’re called “the forever chemical” because they hardly break down. They got into Lake Margrethe after the National Guard used firefighting foam at their nearby airbase.
The Guard hasn’t been able to clean it up, but they’re trying to figure out how to deal with it. And right now, they’re doing things like replacing filters and testing the water.
The Krauses said it’s too little, too late.
“The military is a tenant, and (my mom) is the landlord. The tenant went into the house, they kicked holes in the walls. Then said ‘I want another lease and two more houses,’” Kevin said. “In this case you’d say, ‘How’s about you patch the holes in the wall of the house you just got done renting first?'”
DNR Director Dan Eichinger will make the final decision on whether or not the Guard should get the lease by the end of the year. Points North reached out but he declined to be interviewed.
His decision will be based on the Guard’s proposal, environmental impacts, and how the public feels.
DesJardins said he hopes the state understands the mass disapproval.
“Don’t we, the people have a choice? Why is there no vote?” Desjardins said. “If they’re taking the temperature of the people, they’ve lost.”
For Debbie Light, she worries the expansion will destroy her peace and quiet.
She has property right next to the land the guard wants to start using. It’s tucked away in the forest, down miles of dirt roads. Light calls this place her serenity.
“I have bought military men their dinner because I know they work hard. They’re up here training, doing what they have to do to keep us safe, period,” she said. “This stuff that they’re doing now has nothing to do with keeping us safe. Nothing.”
At least she says the National Guard hasn’t proved that to her yet. If the expansion is approved, she says she’ll probably stop coming up north as often.
In the meantime, residents say they’ll keep fighting to protect the land they love, and the military says they’ll keep fighting to protect us all.
About the Author:
Michael Livingston reports for Interlochen Public Radio from the tip-of-the-mitt – mainly covering Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties. His position is a partnership with Report for America, a national service project that helps staff newsrooms across the country. His stories also appear in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. He graduated from Michigan University with a bachelor of science degree in English.