When the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) board recommended a $254,900 grant to improve the Pigeon River Discovery Center late last year, it was just the latest step in continuing to preserve the future of one of Michigan's most truly wild pieces of public land.
Opened in 2018, the center serves to tell visitors the story of the 107,600-acre Pigeon River Country State Forest – the largest contiguous block of undeveloped land in the Lower Peninsula, bridging Otsego, Cheboygan, and Montmorency counties.
"It always does my heart good when I see a couple come through and say, 'I can't wait to come back here with my kids. My kids are going to love this,'" says Sandy Franz, a member of the center's steering committee. "Our whole point is to create a new generation of stewards and protectors for the forest."
Those stewards and protectors will be well needed. While the Pigeon River Country, also commonly known as "the Big Wild," has been heralded for its pristine natural majesty, it hasn't always been that way. Creating and preserving it has involved a long, sometimes contentious dance between meticulous conservation and the pressures of the outside world.
When the state first established the Pigeon River State Forest in 1919, it had acquired the 6,468 acres that then made up the plot almost by accident. The forest had been ravaged by decades of lumbering activity. Loggers had severely diminished pine and hardwood tree populations in the forest, and forest fires had damaged it as well.
"The lumber companies were left with tens of thousands of acres, which had been lumbered and then burnt over, which were no longer profitable to them but on which they still owed taxes," Franz says. "So those acres found their way to the state of Michigan for tax reversion."
The Pigeon River Country found a crucial early champion in P.S. Lovejoy, who organized and led the Michigan Land Economic Survey for the Michigan Conservation Department in the early 1920s and would go on to become the first chief of the state's Game Division. Through the survey, Lovejoy trained teams of workers to recognize and catalog Michigan's flora and fauna, then made recommendations for land use based on the results. In the Pigeon River Country, former resident forester Ned Caveney says Lovejoy "saw something special."
PS Lovejoy monument.
"After the original logging, a lot of people thought, 'Well, it'll all be farmland,'" says Caveney, who worked in the forest from 1974 to 1990. "But a lot of these soils are not farm soils. They're good for forestry and timber production or wildlife habitat."
Lovejoy was a larger-than-life figure who set a tone for the Pigeon River Country's management that still reverberates today. Franz describes him as a "great believer in the wildness of the land" who "spoke in very colorful language."
"Don’t we all want, yen for, need, some considerable ‘getting away’ from the crowds and the lawnmowers and the tulips? … Isn’t that [the] yen for the Big Wild feel and flavor? I claim it is," Lovejoy wrote. "Therefore I claim that anything that jeopardizes the [Big Wild feel and flavor] is all wrong – poison."
Lovejoy had an early ally in Herman Lunden, who had encouraged him to join the Conservation Department in the first place. Lunden was a lumberman and banker, but he became a dedicated conservationist who was influential in promoting reforestation efforts across the state in the early 1900s. When he and Lovejoy first turned their attention to the Pigeon River Country, Franz says, "they were looking at a treeless landscape."
"Some of the early pictures ... just show the outline of the hills and maybe some stumps here and there, but not so much forest," she says. "They had the ability to see something that wasn't there, and that's one of the great debts that we owe them."
Early management strategies in the forest included replanting many trees, building fire breaks, and reintroducing elk. (Elk had disappeared entirely from Michigan by the mid-1910s due to habitat loss and overhunting; today, the Pigeon River Country's elk herd numbers about 1,100.) In the late '20s, Lunden also wrote what his grandson, Herman Lunden Miller, describes as "a whole sheaf of letters" urging those who owned land in the area to deed it to the state. By Lunden's death in 1929, the forest had already nearly tripled in size.
"The essence of our proper job on the P.R. [was] to handle [it] to 10-25-50 years hence, [so] then people (of the sort which count most) will not be cussing us; will mebbe be saying 'Good Eye,'" Lovejoy wrote.
Flourishing through controversy
The forest would continue to flourish in the mid-1930s thanks to the efforts of two Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps, who notably constructed a forest manager's residence that today houses the Discovery Center. However, that building became a research facility for over two decades when the forest was split into four separate areas in 1952 due to state redistricting.
The forest would be reunited – and strengthened considerably for decades to come – by the threat of oil and gas drilling in the early '70s. In 1970, Shell Oil Company announced a major oil and gas discovery in the forest. Shortly after that, Ford Kellum, then the district wildlife biologist covering the entire northern Lower Peninsula for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, discovered an oil well in a cleared area of the Pigeon River Country.
"That was the first time he knew about oil development in the forest," Franz says. "Needless to say, it came as quite a surprise."
Kellum would become a dogged opponent of drilling in the forest, quitting the DNR in protest in 1971 and becoming one of the leaders of what would become a statewide movement to protect the forest. In 1971 Kellum organized the Pigeon River Country Association, which exists to this day.
"It brought together several folks who valued that wild character and lobbied the [DNR] to also value it," says Joe Jarecki, the forest's unit manager from 1990 to 2007, who currently serves as the Pigeon River Country Association's treasurer.
Joe Jarecki and Gus in the Pigeon River State Forest
In 1972 the association asked the DNR's Natural Resources Commission to designate 127 square miles as a special management area to be again known as the Pigeon River Country State Forest, establishing a set of policies that would preserve the forest and prevent its misuse. Responding to that proposal, the state implemented a management plan for the forest in 1973, which remains in place today. In 1974 the DNR also created the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, which engages representatives of conservationist organizations, the oil and gas industry, and local municipal bodies in providing input on the forest's use.
However, drilling continued. And so did multiple lawsuits throughout the Michigan court system, seeking to stop the activity. The Michigan Supreme Court weighed in on the case in 1979, paving the way for the passage of legislation in 1980 representing a compromise between conservationists and industry: drilling would be limited to the southern one-third of the forest, with many restrictions imposed to mitigate the effects of development.
"It was at that point that the people who had been against drilling knew that the choice was not between drilling and no drilling," says Franz, who is also a longtime member of both the Pigeon River Country Association and the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council. "The choice was between drilling and controlled drilling."
Franz says drilling is "by its very nature inimical" to Lovejoy's vision for the forest. But she also says there's been "good cooperation" between industry, conservationists, and the DNR over the years to create a forest that's as close to that vision as possible while still acknowledging political and economic realities.
"I think it played out as good as it probably could have," Caveney says. "People point at things that could have been better, but it probably could have been a whole lot worse."
Another positive outcome of the controversy was the formation of the Kammer Recreational Trust Fund, now known as the MNRTF. The battle over the Pigeon River Country led conservationists and industry to work together on establishing the fund, which uses the proceeds from oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands. Project applications in the Pigeon River Country have received special priority at MNRTF, and over 12,000 acres have been added to the forest through MNRTF purchases.
"If you look at a map from the mid-'70s of the forest and compare it to now in terms of how much private land is in the boundaries, it's much, much [less]," Jarecki says. "... This large block of contiguous public land is being improved upon, if you will, and a large reason for that to have happened is the availability of support from the Trust Fund."
Preserving the forest for the future
The establishment of the Discovery Center has marked a major new development for the forest – although, in Pigeon River Country tradition, one still deeply rooted in the forest's history. The idea for the center came about when John and Patricia Lunden – grandson and granddaughter-in-law to Herman Lunden – proposed funding a plaque to honor Herman Lunden. The discussion evolved from there into creating an interpretive center that would educate visitors on the forest's history.
In an area where man-made structures are scarce, it was only natural to repurpose the old forest manager's residence, originally constructed by the CCC, for the new facility. Organizers received helpful input during the project from Lyle Horsell, 86, the youngest son of the building's first resident, forester William Horsell.
Pigeon River Discovery Center
"Many of his reminiscences informed some of the exhibits that we did," Franz says. "We were lucky to have his firsthand information."
The center was funded entirely by donations, including a gift from John and Patricia Lunden, and nearly 150 volunteers worked on the project. Rudi Edel, a member of the center's steering committee and longtime member of the Pigeon River Country Association, says local support for the project has been "unbelievable." The center saw over 1,300 visitors in its first year and a 50% increase in visitation in its second year, open only on weekends from April to November.
"We're well accepted and we're used," Edel says. "The comments I get now are, 'Why can't you stay open five days a week?'"
While the days of remediating lumber industry damage or battling over oil and gas drilling may be long past, mapping out the forest's future remains a delicate, deliberate process. Franz references Lovejoy's assertion that anything jeopardizing the "Big Wild" feel is "all wrong," noting that the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council continues to actively discuss Lovejoy's values.
"That dichotomy between a piece of state land that enjoys and warrants public use, and how that coexists with keeping the land wild and keeping political and social pressures from encroaching on that wildness, that's the conversation," she says. "The details are different, but that's the conversation we have at every advisory council meeting."
In an area where expansive, unadulterated wilderness is cherished, seemingly simple decisions hold much deeper significance.
"What's going to be key in the future is how we allocate the recreational resource in the forest and how we maintain the solitude," Caveney says. "... You can sort of define solitude, but it might be defined by everybody a little differently. You know when you've got it. You know when you've lost it. But where is that tipping point? Anytime you increase use, it's really hard, almost impossible, to back up and say, 'We've gone too far.'"
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. Read the full series here.
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