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State might allow mining in the Waterloo Recreation Area

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment wants to allow sand and gravel mining in the largest park in the lower peninsula – the Waterloo Recreation Area.

The DNRE is considering allowing mining on 72 acres of the 20,000 acre park.

It would be the first time mining would be allowed in the Waterloo Recreation Area.

Aggregate Industries, a Maryland-based company and a subsidiary of a Swiss-owned company, wants to do the mining.

The company has already been mining right on Waterloo's western boundary.

Ron Olson, Chief of Recreation for the DNRE, says the DNRE would lease the 72 acres of parkland to Aggregate Industries and in exchange, the state would get a 324 acre parcel that the mining company no longer has a use for:

“So the idea would be if they were able to gravel mine, that they would gift us 324 acres of land, plus they would also pay a royalty fee and then we would also get that revenue as well.”

Those 324 acres would become part of the Waterloo Recreation Area. Olson expects the state to gain $7 or $8 million from royalty money.

The company would have to restore the former 324-acre gravel pit for recreational use... and years later, they’d also have to restore the 72 acres they want to mine. Olson says, "basically, the slopes would be smoothed out to make the abruptness of gravel mining more blended into the landscape, making an area where native vegetation can grow."

This proposal worries a lot of people who live in the Waterloo area.

Rachelle Mann comes to the Waterloo Recreation Area almost every day to run, or walk her dogs. She describes the landscape -“beautiful, wooded, hilled, gorgeous recreation property that horsemen ride on, that hunters hunt through. This entire area is well used.”

I met up with her and we stood on a hill at the edge of the current mining operation:

“I see very ugly flatland. There is no one who lives in this area who thinks it’s an equal exchange.”

A number of people who own homes in the Waterloo Recreation Area have written letters to the DNRE.

The letters express concerns about their property values, impacts on water quality, and the loss of 72 acres of trees.

Rachelle Mann says there’s something else that bothers her.

About half of the land the DNRE wants to lease for mining is covered by a restricted deed. The federal government gave the land to the state in 1943.

“It was signed by Franklin Roosevelt and the great Harold L. Ickes himself," says Mann. "I want to read a little bit of this language: it says, 'provided always this deed is made under the express condition that the state of Michigan shall use the said property exclusively for public park, recreational and conservation purposes.'”

This means the state cannot move forward with the mining lease unless the National Park Service gives them permission.

And there’s more: the land is under additional restrictions because the state has accepted federal funds for the Waterloo Recreation Area.

Bob Anderson, with the National Park Service, says the NPS wants to protect the federal government's investment:

“We don’t own the land. Our focus is to protect the federal investment. This is measured in the land, to make sure if we allow them to convert the acres that they get something equivalent.”

Anderson says the state has to prove they can replace the land that’ll be mined with land that has equal fair market value.

Aggregate Industries did not talk with me after saying they would.

The DNRE is accepting public comments on this proposal until March 15th.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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