Frequently Asked Questions

Michigan Rivers

About 10,000 years ago, when the last of four glaciers covering the Great Lakes basin melted and retreated from the territory that was to become Michigan, the flood of meltwaters issuing from the ice front initiated a vast and varied river system. Subsequent river development produced the state's unique system of numerous, short - because of the bordering Great Lakes - widely distributed rivers in a variety of settings, conditions, and stages of development. Some flow through heavily urbanized areas while others wind their way through virtual wilderness.

Of about 120 major rivers in Michigan , some 40 percent flow into Lake Superior, 35 percent into Lake Michigan and the remaining 25 percent into Lake Huron, Erie and other waters on the eastern side of the Lower Peninsula.

Those rivers flowing through the flat agricultural lands of the southern Lower Peninsula differ dramatically from the rough, rocky rivers of the northern peninsula or those draining the sandy, wild areas of northern lower Michigan. In fact, of the more than 150 waterfalls in Michigan, nearly all are above the Straits of Mackinac. In Gogebic County, the Black River alone has 11 waterfalls plus many stretches of rapids, and a number of other northern streams are just as turbulent and picturesque.

Southern Michigan rivers have their own scenic beauty and attractiveness with many miles where civilization becomes remote and the user can sense the same closeness to nature normally associated with the wild northern streams.

But the beauty and quality of rivers are fragile and the existence of unspoiled stretches is rapidly diminishing. While the history of river use has been important to the development of Michigan as a commercial, industrial and recreational state, rivers as natural, scenic areas are threatened.

In ancient days the rivers were clean and abounded in fish. They served as transportation routes for Michigan's prehistoric inhabitants and for the explorers and settlers during historic times. They were used for access to the interior by fur traders and became the channels in which lumbermen floated their logs to market.

The practice of harnessing the energy in moving water resulted in the building of countless dams to operate mills for grinding grain and sawing lumber to serve the needs of early settlers. Later, these same waters generated electricity for an increasingly complex society. The legacy of this era can be seen in more than 220 dams which still exist in Michigan.

The Problems

As time passed and the land was settled, communities developed, factories built and roads constructed, the rivers ceased to serve as prime sources of energy and avenues of transportation. Instead, many became, sadly and thoughtlessly, receptacles for municipal, industrial and residential sewage and solid waste, and for the litter from millions who used them for recreation. Their borders were cleared of shade producing, soil-holding cover and their floodplains filled for urban expansion and home and cottage sites. Even the remote areas were not immune.

In the past, the economic gains of land development and resource exploitation were accepted, with little question, as having overriding importance. This is no longer true. This chapter of our use of river resources is now coming to an end. The waters and the river environment must once again be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. They are one of our greatest natural assets. Land use and resource protection are compatible and complementary when the needs of both are understood and planned for.

The Program

The responsibility for guiding the protection of designated rivers in a statewide natural rivers system was given to the Department of Natural Resources by the Natural River Act (Part 305 of P.A. 451 of 1994). Under the program, actions are being taken by the state and local units of government to preserve and enhance a broad range of values inherent in our rivers and their tributaries, and to counter existing and potential problems.

A distinctive and important feature of the Natural Rivers Program is the opportunity for local participation in developing the plans for natural rivers. The Department of Natural Resources realizes this is a vital necessity in the planning process to ensure that development controls for land adjacent to a river be reasonable and realistic to property owners. The concept of local control of local land use problems is firmly rooted in Michigan government.

Three broad classes of rivers are recognized which relate to the general setting of each river. Since no two are alike, and they vary from one end to the other, the criteria for each class are flexible and are aimed at guiding use and development which will maintain a certain "feeling" and environment. The names speak for themselves.

  • Wilderness - a free flowing river, with essentially primitive, undeveloped adjacent lands.
  • Wild-Scenic - a river with wild, forested borders; near development; and moderately accessible.
  • Country-Scenic - a river in an agricultural setting with pastoral borders, some homes, and readily accessible.

The following questions and answers are designed to help explain the Natural Rivers Program, and to allay misconceptions about it.

  1. What is the Natural Rivers Program designed to do? What is the legal authority?
    The program was inaugurated to establish a system of natural rivers meeting certain criteria and to protect the natural quality of these rivers from unwise use and development. Any river plan will normally be developed in close cooperation with local government and citizens. The legal authority is the Natural River Act, Part 305 of P.A. 451 of 1994.
  2. How are rivers selected for nomination as natural rivers?
    Department of Natural Resources staff and field personnel, local groups, and private organizations interested in natural resource protection initially recommended 30 rivers for study. Additional rivers may be added upon strong local support for river protection.
  3. How are natural rivers designated?
    Following the nomination process, a long-range management plan for the stream is developed jointly by the DRN, local government and local citizens. This "natural river plan" is then reviewed by the public through hearings and other meetings, and revised to reflect citizen concerns. If the plan is then accepted by the Director of the Department of Natural Resources, the river may be designated a natural river under one of three categories: Wilderness, Wild-Scenic or Country-Scenic.
  4. Does the entire river have to be included?
    No, but the segments must be at least 10 miles in length. Actual limits are determined by the characteristics of the river and its environs. A single river may contain more than one category.
  5. What about tributaries?
    Tributaries are considered as part of the river and selected tributaries are also eligible for designation.
  6. What practical protection does natural river designation provide?
    Once designated by the Department of Natural Resources, zoning of lands along the rivers in a "natural river district" is the chief means of guiding future developments. Part 305 urges and encourages local governmental units to adopt the zoning ordinances necessary to protect the river. In the absence of local zoning, however, the state may zone river frontage by adopting Administrative Rules.
  7. Why all the concern now about the rivers? I thought river pollution was coming under control.
    River pollution from municipal and industrial sewage sources is rapidly disappearing under the DNR's water pollution control programs. The danger now is from sources not as flagrant, but just as damaging: dense riverbank development, overuse by boating, drainage or alteration of wetlands, removal of vegetation and creation of other conditions contributing to excessive runoff, erosion and loss of natural habitat.
  8. Does designation mean the public has the right to use private land along the river?
    No. Private land remains private and the owner's permission must be obtained to use it.
  9. Does it have any legal effect on private property ownership along the river?
    Only concerning "use" and "development", as in any zoning ordinance adopted for control of residential and commercial development in cities.
  10. Is there any tax break for natural river property owners?
    Owners of undeveloped river frontage along rivers designated under the Natural River Act may sign an open space development rights easement with the Department of Agriculture under provisions of Part 361 of P.A. 451. Under this act, the land will be taxed as open space rather than as riverfront development property which may result in a property tax reduction for the owner of undeveloped river frontage. However, this is not a requirement under the Natural River Act.
  11. What is a natural rivers management plan and by whom is it prepared?
    The plan is prepared in preliminary form by the DNR with citizen participation usually in the form of a "local planning group." It outlines state, federal and local management programs as well as guidelines for zoning of private land which will guide future development to protect the natural characteristics of the river. The plan will also propose methods to protect fish, wildlife, scenic beauty, floodplain, ecologic, historic and recreational values of the river and adjoining lands, and continued maintenance and enhancement of water quality.
  12. Is zoning the principal recommended means to carry out proposals in the management plan?
    Yes. Zoning by the local townships or counties is encouraged.
  13. Is this type of zoning constitutional?
    Precedents set in other states indicate that natural river zoning is a valid means of protecting the public trust, which traditionally has been held to cover water resources. The constitutionality of zoning is well-documented in Michigan court actions. Natural rivers zoning is simply an extension of zoning principles currently applied to residential, commercial and industrial development. In addition, in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a community has as much right to make itself beautiful as it does to make itself healthful, safe and clean.
  14. What is a natural river district?
    It is designated strip of land on each side of and parallel to the designated portion of the river. This land is described in the natural river plan. The district will be a definable area, just as any other zoning district, within which new development can be guided. ESTABLISHEMENT OF THIS DISTRICT IN NO WAY IMPLIES THE TAKING OF PRIVATE LANDS BY THE STATE OR OPENING THEM UP TO PUBLIC USE NOR DOES IT PROHIBIT ANY PERSON'S VESTED RIGHT TO MAKE REASONABLE USE OF HIS PRIVATE PROPERTY.
  15. What land use provisions are usually specified in a district?
    A setback from the river for new development, minimum lot sizes, types of uses allowed, and width of a "natural vegetation strip," in addition to other controls within zoning authority.
  16. If my lot is too small and I can't build and comply with the setback distance, what can I do?
    You may request a variance or special use permit from the local zoning officials, who will work with you to reach a solution which will allow reasonable use of the property while still providing reasonable protection of the resource.
  17. If my house is located closer to the river than the recommended "setback" in the zoning rules, will it have to be moved back to conform to the requirements?
    Zoning cannot be retroactive. It only applies to new development.
  18. If my house is closer than the recommended setback, can I build an addition, remodel, or rebuild if it burns down?
    A variance may be granted as long as the building is not located on land subject to flooding, the construction would not lead to bank erosion or other material degradation of the river, and it meets the provisions of existing local health codes.
  19. How does this apply to my farm frontage on the river?
    Present agricultural practices, such as grazing, fencing and cultivation of crops are permitted unless the operation is of a size or nature that the livestock cause damage to the river banks or pollute the streams. If so, the Surface Water Quality Division of DEQ may suggest measures to remedy the situation. New farming practices such as barn yards, feed lots, or other uses must be set back according to building setbacks. New areas brought under cultivation must respect the natural vegetation strip.
  20. What is a "natural vegetation strip" and why should it be maintained?
    A natural vegetation strip is an area, usually 50 to 100 feet wide on each side of and parallel to the river, which is left essentially in a natural condition. Dead and diseased trees, noxious plans and existing lawns may be cut in this area, but clearcutting will be prohibited. The vegetative strip is essential to help stabilize the river banks to prevent erosion and the resulting siltation of the river, to provide shade and cover for fish and wildlife, to absorb nutrients from surface water runoff, and to provide screening for private and public developments.
  21. How can I maintain my view of the river if this vegetative strip is too close?
    The plan will contain provisions for selective removal or pruning to maintain a view of the river.
  22. Can the state acquire land through condemnation under the Natural River Act?
    No. This is specifically prohibited in the Act, but the law authorizes the state to purchase lands with the consent of the landowner.
  23. Can a private landowner along a natural river force the state to acquire his property?
    No. The land may be offered to the Department of Natural Resources; however, if funds are not available or there is no interest in acquiring the property, the Department of Natural Resources is not required to purchase it.
  24. Do other states have Natural Rivers Programs?
    Yes, including most of our neighboring states. The programs vary as to methods and provisions, but the intent is the same; protection of a priceless natural resource held in public trust.