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A test of ‘leave no trace’: Park Service investigates illegal Platte River shift

Before and after of Platte River
The before image (left) is a Google satellite shot of the Platte River from earlier this year. The after image (right) is a drone shot from the National Park Service.

When Scott Tucker saw a newly-made river channel on the mouth of the Platte River, his first reaction was: “Holy smoke.”

Tucker is the superintendent of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. When I met him at the mouth of the river, it was only two weeks after the shift, but the channel had already changed.

“Lake Michigan is sculpting like it does every day of its existence, and will dictate what this area looks like in the next few months,” Tucker said.

The Platte River used to flow parallel to a sandbar for a quarter-mile before draining into Lake Michigan. But the new channel cuts through the sandbar, and the new river mouth covers 200 feet of shoreline in water.

The dramatic and overnight change, without any clear natural causes, prompted the National Park Service to investigate.

If nature had done it, we would let nature proceed,” Tucker said. “But in this case, nature didn't do it. And so we need to follow the facts to find out why it happened, and then mitigate some of the impacts.”

The investigation is still ongoing. The Park Service confirmed the shift was human-caused, but is still figuring out the who, how, and why - questions that park visitors are also asking.

Why? Why would anyone do that?” said park visitor Myra Elias. “I wish I could think of something more profound to comment on, but it’s a mystery.”

Elias has been visiting the river since she was just six years old. She’s brought her kids as they were growing up, and now her grandkids to the lakeshore. She said she doesn’t understand why people don’t respect places as special as this one.

“I’m disappointed that it seems to be so often the way the world is,” Elias said, adding, “not everywhere, of course. And not everyone, only a few people. Most people come here and love it like we do…”

The mouth of the Platte River on a sunny day. The photo shows a fork in the river that was not there prior to the illegal diversion.
Teresa Homsi
Following the "illegal diversion" in Mid-August, the Platte River has a new channel that drains into Lake Michigan. This photo, taken two weeks after the change, shows a fork in the river that was not there prior to the diversion.

The potential impacts of this sudden change on natural resources and habitats - like the endangered piping plover that nest on the shoreline - are still unknown.

Don Uzarski is the director of CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research. He is not part of the investigation. He said human alterations to natural landscapes can have unintended consequences.

“The ecosystem is structured and functioning in ways that you can't see,” Uzarski said. “Hydrology impacts chemistry, which impacts biology, which impacts the entire ecosystem.”

Uzarski said the creation of a new channel - or ditch, as he calls it - can set off a chain reaction. A different river flow changes how energy dissipates and may affect the ecosystems upstream as well. It also may expose certain sediment and change oxygen levels, which impacts microbial presence.

In fact, the Park Service is testing the original, now stagnating, river channel for E. coli.

“For at least a period of time, it's going to function as a ditch, not a river,” Uzarski said. “It'll become a new river channel. And it will take either restoration, or a long time for this system to heal itself.”

Change is a rule of nature, and humans do have a place in ecosystems. Uzarski said this incident was an encroachment.

The consequences aren’t just environmental. The park service is calling the shift an “illegal diversion.” Since it happened on federally protected land, there may even be legal implications.

Park superintendent Scott Tucker said the park service hasn’t gotten to that point yet. He said he hopes if people saw something, they share it with the park’s tip line.

We want visitors to be able to recreate on their own terms, but there's always an asterisk in that,” Tucker said. “If their recreation causes natural resource or cultural resource damage, then that's where we have to step in.”

“Leave no trace” is a key - maybe even cliché - principle. For Tucker, it’s the foundation for everything he and the park stands for. He said dealing with people, who might not respect or understand that principle, is just a part of his job.

“I learned long ago, this isn't personal against me as a federal employee or me as a superintendent,” Tucker said. “It's a source of how we do better for our park? And for your park and for everyone's park? Our goal is that when it resolves itself, that we're all in a better place.”

Tucker said he’s in the “forever business.” He’s tasked with making sure the park looks the same way from when it was established in 1970 to a hundred years from now. But after the August diversion, it’s likely not going to look the same anymore.

The park is now reckoning with the impacts of what happens when people don’t take only memories and leave only footprints.

Platte River Shift.mp4

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.