The Beginnings of the Pilgrim River Watershed Project

The concept of a Pilgrim River valley conservation project evolved during an extended conversation among hikers along the Pilgrim River somewhere downstream from the Superior Road bridge in late fall 2006. The members of that group included Rich Bowman, then Executive Director of Michigan TU; Bill Deephouse, retired DNR fisheries biologist; and Shawn Hagan, Director of Forest Operations for The Forestland Group, the managing company of the land at that time.

Keweenaw Land Trust developed a plan to pursue a conservation easement on a core 1022 acre commercial forest (CF) tract, the plan progressing with support from Portage Township, Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited (CCCTU), and adjacent property owners. The conservation project was approved by both the township recreation committee and the township planning commission, the goal ultimately being for Portage Township to become the applicant for Natural Resource Trust Fund grant monies. The full township board scheduled two public hearings in spring 2007 to garner citizen input; unfortunately, these meetings were never held as the property was sold within a much larger land sale between The Forestland Group and Molpus Timberlands.

Molpus had been apprised of the interest in a Pilgrim River conservation project prior to their purchase of over 65,000 acres of local timberlands, basically much of the former Copper Range and Mead properties. The new corporate owner was uninterested in pursuing a conservation easement themselves, but was very receptive to the easement concept as the appropriate plan for the property. Therefore, in September 2009, after extensive negotiations with Molpus, The Hovel family of Conover, Wisconsin, purchased the core 1022 acre tract, plus an additional 360 acres of critical watershed further upstream. We again have the opportunity to protect the Pilgrim River valley, this time with a conservation minded, willing private landowner.

Our growing coalition of conservation partners intends to make an outright purchase of the development rights on the 1382 acres to prevent development, insure the land remains a working forest, and provide enhanced quiet recreational opportunities. The land has been in CF for decades, but future owners may not continue the stewardship that Mead and the Forestland Group have shown, or that the Hovels exemplify. Furthermore, lands in CF can be withdrawn and developed, and technically the only public uses are hunting, fishing, and trapping.

By purchasing the development rights, our coalition of conservation partners can insure that, no matter who owns the land in the future, hunting, fishing, hiking, snowshoeing, bird watching, etc. will be available to the public. The popular Nara nature trails and MTU ski trails could in time be extended another five miles upstream along a scenic and productive trout stream to network outdoor recreational activities only minutes from downtown Houghton.