The Sylvania Wilderness is made up of 18,327 acres of pristine old-growth forest and 34 named lakes in the Ottawa National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Spared from development when a Wisconsin businessman recognized its extraordinary beauty, the area operated as a private hunting and fishing club for more than half a century before being purchased by the United States Forest Service in 1966.
As a result, Sylvania offers one of the last remaining large tracts of virgin old-growth forest left in the Midwest. Its altitude and remote location lead to pure streams and crystal-clear lakes, which are home to world-class bluegill and smallmouth bass fisheries. Interconnected lakes offer visitors the opportunity to paddle deep into the wilderness. In most instances, the area is still and quiet – the silence often broken only by the sound of loons and eagles.
However, the beauty and tranquility of the Sylvania Wilderness has been interrupted in recent years by gas motorboat usage on Crooked Lake, one of the largest lakes in the wilderness, and the entry point for most visitors to the wilderness area. Approximately ten private properties line the far shore of Crooked Lake, outside of the boundaries of the Sylvania Wilderness, and some property owners and visitors to the lake were taking their motorboats deep into the wilderness. In response, the U.S. Forest Service passed restrictions on motorboat usage in the Sylvania Wilderness in 1995. Two property owners sued the Forest Service and obtained an injunction such that the Forest Service could not enforce its restrictions against them. The Forest Service continued to restrict gas motorboat use by everyone else in the Sylvania Wilderness.
In 2006, the Forest Service reissued its Land and Resources Management Plan for the Ottawa National Forest and affirmed its declaration that gas motorboats may not be used in the wilderness portion of Crooked Lake. The Forest Service made a limited exception for the single remaining plaintiff from the earlier lawsuit. Despite this clear order, in 2014, a husband and wife that had purchased property on Crooked Lake in 2010 (four years after the Forest Service had reaffirmed its position) sued the Forest Service in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, claiming that the Forest Service’s restrictions on motorboat usage are unlawful.
What is ELPC Doing?
Victory! In June 2016, the Federal District Court ruled in favor of ELPC, our clients, and the U.S. Forest Service to uphold restrictions on the use of loud and disruptive gas-powered motorboats in the beautiful interconnected lakes of the Sylvania.
Federal District Court Judge R. Allan Edgar’s decision enables the U.S. Forest Service to enforce the laws to protect the Sylvania Wilderness as place to canoe, hike, camp and enjoy the quiet of the outdoors. The Court held that restrictions on large gas-powered motorboats “are precisely the type of regulation that Michigan courts have upheld as reasonable” and are rationally connected to achieving the goal of preserving Sylvania’s wilderness character.
ELPC attorneys represented Sylvania Wilderness Cabins, Friends of Sylvania, and the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition in this case. ELPC’s legal victory will help preserve pristine water quality, reduce the spread of damaging invasive aquatic plant species, and preserve the wonderful quiet and scenic enjoyment of this special natural place. This is an important court victory that sets a precedent for protecting the Sylvania Wilderness Area and other protected National Lakeshores and Wilderness Areas around the Great Lakes and Midwest.