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Controversial alcohol ban delayed on Au Sable, Manistee, Pine rivers

By Ann Zaniewski/Detroit Free Press (TNS) • Feb 17, 2019 at 1:00 PM

A controversial ban on alcohol use on three Michigan rivers has been delayed until at least 2020.

The decision Tuesday by U.S. Forest Service officials followed a flood of concerns about the rule announced earlier this month for parts of the Au Sable, Manistee and Pine rivers. The ban was to take effect in May.

Instead, officials are convening a group of business owners, government leaders and residents to come up with a plan that addresses the persistent public safety and environmental issues associated with alcohol use on the waterways.

“We welcome a practical, community-driven solution to these challenges,” Huron-Manistee National Forests Supervisor Leslie Auriemmo said.

Issued Feb. 1, the order prohibited alcohol use on or within 200 feet of the three rivers that run through the Huron-Manistee National Forests in the northern Lower Peninsula. It did not apply to private land, developed campgrounds or designated campsites.

The penalty for a violation was a fine of up to $5,000 and up to six months in jail.

Some people welcomed the ban. But there were also business owners and community leaders who said they were caught off guard and worried about the impact on tourism.

"Just not having any community, state, (or) local involvement in the ban was kind of shocking to us," said Stacie Bytwork, president of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce.

As word spread, people canceled reservations at campgrounds and canoe liveries. A petition against the ban on change.org garnered 46,000 signatures.

The Twin Oaks Campground & Cabins in Wellston lost 20 reservations — worth about $5,000 — in a span of 48 hours, said Hayley Brown, who owns the business with her husband, Michael Wendt.

"The main response I got was that people loved the campground, they loved the Pine River," she said. "They just felt like their personal freedom was being taken away, so they would rather go elsewhere."

Brown said she is happy that officials are forming a group to study alternatives. Auriemmo invited her and Wendt to be a part of it, she said.

Nate Peeters, public affairs officer for Huron-Manistee National Forests, said the Forest Service aims to protect the natural, cultural and recreational values of the rivers.

That mission has become more challenging, he said, amid an increase in recent years of bad behavior linked to alcohol use — like heavily intoxicated people needing to be rescued from the water, drunk people assaulting other visitors and pollution from discarded cans and bottles.

"This behavior is really excluding families and youth groups and other community members from experiencing safe and enjoyable" recreation on the rivers, he said.

He added: "There are people who use alcohol responsibly on these rivers. We are not saying everyone who is going out there is causing a problem."

Peeters said he expects the group to come up with an alternative proposal by May, just in time for the 2019 summer recreation season.

If the plan is implemented and conditions don't improve, the Forest Service will consider banning alcohol in 2020.

People who have suggestions or want to get involved with the working group can reach out to Peeters by e-mail at [email protected] or mail at 1755 S. Mitchell St., Cadillac, MI 49601.

For more information about the Huron-Manistee National Forests, go to https://fs.usda.gov/hmnf.

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