Fighting Goliath in Michigan’s Dunes

Along the southeast corner of Lake Michigan, near the coastal town of Saugatuck, Michigan, lies a line of snowy, pristine freshwater sand dunes up to 240 feet in height. I have yet to see the dunes myself, but they are said to be spectacular. Of them poet Carl Sandburg wrote: “Those dunes are to the Midwest what the Grand Canyon is to Arizona and the Yosemite to California.”

So it will come as little surprise that the dunes—like those other natural wonders of Arizona and California—are gravely imperiled by development.

Since 2006, Aubrey McClendon, the billionaire CEO of Chesapeake Energy, has been trying to turn 400 acres of the dunes into a resort replete with nine-story hotel, golf course, marina, gated community, and equestrian center.

The fight shows how the question of urban sprawl can divide a less-than-urban community. Saugatuck has only 3,000 residents. According to newspaper reports, things turned nasty when the local zoning board rezoned McClendon’s land in a way that limited his development plans. McClendon sued, alleging that the zoning laws were changed just to stymie him. Last year, Saugatuck residents voted 491-489 to raise taxes so as to continue resisting the tycoon.

Of course, McClendon would not call his planned resort “sprawl.” That word belongs to Alison Swan, a lifelong Michiganer, who first walked the dunes two decades ago and has been working to preserve them nearly as long. “Our fight is to keep sprawl out of our dunes,” she says.

Swan, a professor of environmental studies at Western Michigan University, serves as a board member for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, which has spearheaded efforts against McClendon. I met her at the June conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. If you ever wondered about the symbolism of the bear in William Faulkner’s famous short story of the same name, of if you puzzle over what an “ecocritic” does all day—or if you just like hearing the words “scientizing” and “sociobiology” said together—this is the conference for you. Swan has been coming for years.

“It’s my contact with the land and engagement with it through words that allow me to continue this environmental activism,” she told a small, sympathetic audience. She has a small, friendly, well-cut face that lifts humorously even she speaks of her despair over development and pollution along the Great Lakes.

The dispute over the Saugatuck dunes has grown deadly serious. Swan withheld the names of her co-activists in an essay she read at the conference. “They wouldn’t want their names out in public,” she said simply. Michigan Quarterly Review, which will publish her essay this fall, took the precaution of having lawyers pore over Swan’s words in case she had tucked incendiary adverbs in there. There was even an actual bomb threat against Saugatuck’s elected officials and attorneys in May of this year.

Environmentalists like Swan are quick to point out the fragility of a dune landscape. Without its protective web of tough native plants to anchor their flanks, the Saugatuck dunes would swiftly fall to the same wind and waves that formed them—as would populations of endangered critters unique to this place like the Blanchard’s cricket frog.

The dunes, said Swan, are a place “where human lives threaten to completely overwhelm non-human lives.”

In the midst of the Great Recession, the odds of winning an environmental campaign in Michigan aren’t great. As one man in Swan’s audience remarked after her reading, “Michigan’s political climate is so anti-environment and pro-business that I don’t know how you fight that.”

But fight it Swan has. With her husband, David, she previously led a campaign that kept a water treatment plant out of the dunes. She’s hoping this battle will end similarly. “One of the hallmarks of our water-treatment fight,” Swan told conference-goers, “was that everyone viewed the dunes as their place: the hikers, tree-huggers, fishermen, local businesspeople, teachers who wanted to bring their kids there to learn, landowners who wanted to maintain their property values, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Jews.”

Can Swan and company maintain such a broad coalition as the fight drags on? Even if they can, will their combined resources be enough to keep the deep-pocketed McClendon from building on dunes he owns? Mindful of the high stakes, the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance seeks donations, volunteers, and tweets.