Reflections Rivers of the Huron-Manistee National Forest

The River Management Society (RMS), in partnership with the Interagency Wild and Scenic Rivers Coordinating Council (IWSRCC) initiated a project to share stories from river managers and planners who have completed Comprehensive River Management Plans (CRMPs). The professionals highlighted in these articles have developed, revised and deployed CRMPs with a common goal to protect and enhance the free-flowing condition, water quality and outstandingly remarkable values of Wild and Scenic Rivers (WSRs).

Au Sable River by Gary Howe

Pere Marquette, Manistee, Bear Creek, Pine, and Au Sable Wild and Scenic Rivers

Huron-Manistee National Forest, MI

Lying between the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, are the Huron-Manistee National Forests.The area boasts sparkling lakes and rivers amongst the dense jack pines. Land use and ownership in Northern Michigan have seen dramatic changes in the last few centuries from the bands of the Grand River Ottawa people to the fur traders, timber industry, and construction of hydropower dams, impacting the ecosystem and the economy that surround the rivers today. Protection through WSR designation was awarded to rivers in the area in 1978, 1984, and 1992. By balancing the area’s history with its current conditions, Kristen Thrall works to protect and enhance the values of the Au Sable, Manistee, Bear Creek, Pine, and Pere Marquette rivers for the future.

Kristen Thrall

Kristen works as the forest Recreation and Hydropower Program Manager and regional Trails Advisory Group (TAG) Representative and came into the position with a background in planning and a focus on communication and relationships. The Huron-Manistee relies on strong partnerships to administer the forest lands across a variety of jurisdictions. The sheer proximity of partners and historical relationships requires constant collaboration. Kristen believes the ideal situation for river management on the forest is to maintain strong lines of communication between every group in the river community to make sure everyone is at the table for decisions.

Tribal Relations

The land along the Manistee river has been occupied by the Ottawa Indians for centuries. Today, The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians retain the values that they have held for the local sturgeon and have worked to design a stewardship plan that involves recovery activities in the watershed.

Kristen: “The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is trying to revive the sturgeon. They have a very cool rearing station, where they raise baby sturgeon in Manistee River water, and then have a release every year. That they have just found a returned sturgeon is an amazing success story.”

While this project was developed by a Tribe using a traditional cultural method of the region to restore a native Michigan fish species population, anglers worried about the impact to fisheries and the recreational value of the river.

Kristen: “ORVs included fisheries, fish habitat, and recreation. An aspect of the rearing station was that guides were upset that the station might block passage of both steelhead, a species that is non-native but important to their business, and watercrafts.”

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians hold a lands special use permit and they amended the permit to include the installation of a fishing weir as part of the project. The original plans were to construct the weir across the width of the river, but after some public meetings and engagement with the fisheries biologist, the plan was modified to construct the weir only halfway across the river and the concerns of the fishing community were reduced. Additionally, they have considered using pit tags and other methods to collect data on the sturgeon. Facilitating discussions between user groups and anticipating project proposals during the planning process can result in a robust management plan. Communication amongst these groups continues to be important to improve historical trust issues.

Relationship Building

The Pere Marquette was the first river to be designated on the forest in 1978. When additional rivers were designated, the lessons learned from the planning process for the Pere Marquette guided engagement efforts moving forward.

Kristen: “At the Huron-Manistee National Forest, these relationships were built by discovering potential stakeholder groups early-on: everybody was at the table during its development.”

With the goal of inclusivity in mind, Kristen recognized that the number of people engaged grows quickly when community members are primarily spreading the word.

Kristen: “Interested people are our stewards. They’re the ones out there doing cleanups and putting people on the river. By taking the time to listen and making it a priority to work with the people involved, they’ll get other people involved. We can host a meeting at a Forest Service building and invite people, but if they’re inviting their people to their community center, the network can become larger and stronger.”

Open houses, public meetings, and informal conversations can help gather information from river users, and aid in management decisions, directly. Taking the time to sit across from partners on the rivers help managers gain feedback and more accurately address how the CRMP is working. Kristen wants to do this in the interim between projects and designations to create a good foundation for future decision making.

Kristen: “One of the things I am thinking about, is connecting with various communities through open format discussions. My invitation and message will be: ‘I’m here and I don’t have an agenda. I’m not here to tell you about our latest project - I’m just here to meet you, understand your concerns and questions and try to build those relationships.’

Visitor Use Data

93% of use on the Huron-Manistee is dispersed, making it difficult to track. In order to understand and adapt to the desires of visitors, the forest worked with Michigan State University to collect use information on the Pere Marquette and Au Sable Rivers.

Kristen: “I’ve done interviews and talked to people who come off the river or other dispersed sites. On one of those days when it is packed - they say there’s no crowding and they’ve had a great time. People show up from Chicago with full luggage like they’re going on a flight! Part of me says, what are you doing, where’s your backpack?” The other part of me says, “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here!” We’re trying to be inclusive.”

Kristen has worked to understand the different perceptions and experiences that the visitors have. The survey provided insight into the factors behind those experiences.

Kristen: “The State of Michigan did a survey on people visiting - and people are scared when they visit! So, there’s a fear factor we need to understand. People are scared to be by themselves in the woods! For some people travelling in groups gives them a sense of safety and comfort. Who am I to say this isn’t a wilderness experience?”

Kristen’s desire to understand visitor experiences extends to more robust data collection on their impacts as well. Oftentimes this data is old or missing altogether. She encourages managers to collect as much as they can, so they can adapt to changing uses.

Kristen: “River managers need to really emphasize and push for the collection of use data, so others in the system understand, how important it is, throughout the life of your River Plan. You can’t make a decision to tell people they can’t be there if you don’t have good data to support their contribution to unacceptable impact of values you are charged to manage, protect or improve. We have numbers someone came up with in the 1970s and 1980s and have had to revisit them. We’ve learned we have to be flexible: as people and watercraft preferences change, use patterns also change.”

Michigan State University has assisted with some monitoring on the forest as the Huron-Manistee staff do not have the capacity to run a complex visitor use monitoring protocol. Kristen utilizes other strategies to adapt to changing use patterns like coordinating with the Sustainable Recreation Program, the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program, the Michigan Tourism and Recreation Program and other partners in order to develop a 5-10 year plan for recreation in the state. When data from the forest is insufficient, information sharing amongst these groups helps guide decisions.

Water Quality

The Pine River by Pine River Paddlesports

With many rivers spanning across the forest, collecting sufficient water quality data is challenging. Kristen has considered where data collection needs overlap in the area and worked with partners to collect it.

Kristen: “The health of the fisheries can tell us the health of the water quality too. As the hydropower lead, I work closely with the interagency team that includes the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the utility company, and Michigan Hydro coalitions. It’s a good group of people that work together. They collect and can analyze water quality data at a higher level than anything we could do on the National Forest.”

The construction of the hydropower dams on the Manistee and Au Sable required licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and they mandated that Consumers Energy would work with the local agencies to monitor and maintain water quality. The focus for the wild and scenic rivers in Northern Michigan is to keep water temperatures at levels that are suitable for the fish populations, so they work to monitor this closely. Overall, the coordination between these state and federal groups has resulted in strong lines of communication that can be used to address even more activities and project proposals around the rivers.

RMS advances the profession of river management by providing a unique variety of forums for sharing information about the appropriate use and management of river resources. RMS continues to build its base of expertise in all aspects of river management and stewardship including an ecosystem approach to recreation, water quality, riparian health, and watershed management. Besides creating multiple opportunities each year for river professionals to learn, train and network, RMS is growing partnerships that will help river professionals serve both our river resources and the people who use and enjoy them.


IMG1 - Manistee River by Ted Kraimer IMG2 - Au Sable River by Gary Howe, Web: garylhowe.photoshelter.com Insta: glh.image IMG3 - Kristen Thrall, Recreation and Hydropower Program Manager IMG4 - Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Flag IMG5 - Pine River by Recreation.gov IMG6 - The Pine River by Pine River Paddlesports