By Dave Dister, Consulting Ecologist, Ludington, MI
One of the prime reasons I moved to the Ludington, Michigan area in 2008 was the aesthetic and biological diversity evident at Ludington State Park (LSP). As a field biologist nearing the end of his formal career, I was eager to conduct a study of the vascular plants within the 5,300-acre park. That study consumed six years of exploring all habitats and ecosystems, and documenting (by vouchers) the flora I encountered. Although the unfortunate presence of the Sargent Sand Company operation was obvious as it cut through the south end of the park, it was not until the fracking boom a few years ago that I took special notice as a residential neighbor.
Above is a dynamic map of silica sands and frac sand mines, drying facilities, and other related facilities. Zoom and click on the map to explore various aspects of frac sand mining infrastructure. Click here to view the map full screen along with its legend.
Expanding Sand Mining
That “sleepy” sand mining operation suddenly turned into a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation, with associated noise that irritated a very light-sleeping biologist. Hamlin Township officials were only partially effective in addressing residential impacts “after hours,” and had no interest in developing reasonable ordinances upon a commercial operation. Although increased noise and truck traffic were a tangible nuisance, only when a renewal of the company’s sand mining permit was announced did it become clear that biological resources within the 372-acre private in-holding were afforded virtually no protection at all. And the more research I did into the regulatory permitting process, the more incredulous the situation appeared.
Above – Photos of Sargent Sands frac sand mining operations taken by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance
1979 Environmental Impact Report
My expertise as a wetlands biologist and botanist were well suited to scrutinizing the 1979 Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which was a hastily-compiled poorly-researched 24-page document.
From my perspective, there was a poor level of protection afforded to the Federal and State Threatened Pitcher’s Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri). As far as is known, Sargent Sand has no records of relocating this plant in proposed or active mining cells in its 100-year history of mining, although the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has known about plants on the property for more than 20 years. The MDNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have been complicit in not adequately protecting this species, which has had minimal research into the success (or not) of transplanting individual plants. Young plants appear to transplant well, but long-term studies are not available. Older plants are much less likely to survive transplanting, as they depend on numerous minute root hairs to absorb moisture in a xeric habitat, and removal from a dune would strip-off most such root hairs. It requires about seven years for these plants to mature, so reproductive rates are slow.
Yep, it’s a fact of life – plants simply are not nearly as charismatic as animals, and consequently are treated as “second-class organisms” in the world of environmental protection. Sadly, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) just renewed the sand mining permit that allows Sargent Sand to “self-monitor” for this threatened species, and to “move plants” encountered in areas proposed for development. Does anyone really think a mining company will give two hoots about a thistle plant?!
Great Lakes Barrens Ecosystem
The rarity and value of Great Lakes Barrens (GLB) was not addressed when the 1979 EIR was written, though such ecosystems are clearly visible on aerial photographs of Sargent Sand Company property and surrounding LSP. These natural communities are known to be imperiled ecosystems at both the state and global levels. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory classifies “Great Lakes Barrens” – that include jack pine stands with associated xeric-loving shrubs and forbs – as S2 natural communities:
Imperiled in the state because of rarity due to very restricted range, very few occurrences, steep declines, or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the state. – Michigan Natural Features Inventory
Globally, Great Lakes Barrens have a similar designation. Consequently, mitigation measures must be strengthened and avoidance of impacts considered. Any Restoration Plan of such habitats must include high quality GLB plants such as buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), ground juniper (Juniperus communis), sand cherry (Prunus pumila), sand-dune willow (Salix cordata), blueleaf willow (Salix myricoides), beach-heath (Hudsonia tomentosa), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), white camas (Anticlea elegans), and wild wormwood (Artemisia campestris), among others.
Again, unfortunately the MDNR has not enforced strong protections against the destruction of Great Lakes Barrens. The “reclamation” of destroyed dunes and jack pine barrens for a mere “one-year period at 80 percent vegetative cover” comes nowhere close to a viable mitigation plan, as trees and shrubs impacted in such areas take decades to recover.
Furthermore, other state-listed plants, such as ram’s head lady-slipper orchid (Cypripedium arietinum) are known to be adjacent to Sargent Sand property but are not legally protected as they are only “Special Concern” species. Lastly, the Lake Huron locust (Trimerotropsis huroniana) is a state Threatened insect known to occur within Ludington State Park, and suitable “sparsely vegetated dune” habitat is common within Sargent Sand’s property. If you thought rare plants get little respect, try to protect a threatened grasshopper!
Great Lakes Barrens often include seasonal wetlands that are protected under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act of 1972, but which often lack surface waters much of the year. Not surprisingly, the 1979 EIR does not mention “wetlands” at all. At best, there is a comment that “There are three or four very small swamp areas on the property…” However, a review of recent aerial photography indicates many Interdunal Wetlands remain within the northern half of Sargent Sand property. The largest of these appears to be at least 0.5 acre in size, and it is likely that several acres of such wetlands exist on the property.
Consequently, a formal Wetland Delineation is needed to determine the exact location and amount of Jurisdictional Wetlands on Sargent Sand property. Any impact to such wetlands requires mitigation measures that include avoidance, minimization, and/or wetland creation elsewhere within the watershed. Additionally, Interdunal Wetlands are ranked S2 Natural Communities by the State of Michigan, and have a rank of G2 globally. Both of these designations indicate these areas are “Imperiled,” so mitigation ratios should be high (e.g., 10:1 or 20:1).
Current Political Climate in Ludington
The current political leadership in Michigan, as well as the nation, has presented a formidable challenge for environmentalists and scientists. Additionally, the system certainly appears rigged when the agency – the MDEQ – that issues permits and permit renewals is also a lobbyist for the oil, gas, and minerals industry. Nevertheless, the battle to protect this natural heritage is a noble and vital one that will persist. As with every other sensitive and rare environmental resource, if no one scrutinizes the lax protection of our natural heritage, before you know it, it will be gone.