Email Updates
Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.


Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.
Email Updates
Sign up to stay informed about the latest happenings at Interior.
U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Policy, Management and Budget
twitter facebook youtube tumblr instagram Google+ flickr

Click to toggle text size.

Chapter 18: Michigan's Coastal and Northern Forested Wetlands


Physical Description: Michigan borders on four Great Lakes (Michigan, Superior, Huron and Erie) and two international, connecting channel systems (St. Marys River and St. Clair-Detroit River Ecosystem). (See Figure XVIII-1.) The State's mainland coastal shoreline stretches for 2300 miles; coastal island shorelines add another 1000 miles. The coastal wetlands are found at river mouths, in sheltered bays, along shallow shorelines, and behind barrier beaches. Most of Michigan's forested wetlands are found in the upper peninsula and the northern lower peninsula. In areas seasonally inundated by rivers, hardwoods such as red maple and black ash occur, while in depression-type wetlands, conifer species dominate.



Characteristics and Functions: Michigan's coastal wetlands

  • Host three endangered and five threatened species, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and 5 plants;
  • Include two National Lakeshores, one National Park, three National Forests, and six National Wildlife Refuges.1 About 21 percent of the mainland shoreline is in public ownership; 30 percent, if island shorelines are added to the total.

Michigan's northern forested wetlands

  • Offer food and cover to many species of birds and wildlife due to multiple vegetative strata, the presence of water, and riparian corridors that allow for movement between habitats;
  • Reduce flood peaks within watersheds, serve as natural filters, control erosion, and recharge and discharge groundwater;
  • Are contained within private forest lands and 3 national forests. Over 400,000 acres (12 percent) of these forested wetlands are in public ownership;
  • Host one endangered and two threatened species.

Michigan's coastal wetlands have been estimated to generate between $216 million and $425 million in benefits annually, with each acre providing over $2000 in services. Estimates of annual values for the various services are given in Table XVIII-1.2

NOTE: If this table does not appear as a table, please click on this link to view it as a graphic file.
Table XVIII-1 (8Kb gif)

Table XVIII-1: Economic Value of Michigan's Coastal Wetlands, 1980
Economic Service Annual
Value per acre
Runoff nutrient control $679
Sport fishing 426
Fish production 420
Waterfowl breeding/feeding 291
Nonconsumptive recreation 148
Waterfowl hunting 42
Trapping of furbearers 30
Water supply 6
Commercial fishing 5
TOTAL $2047
Source: Herdendorf, et al. 1986, based on
data from Jaworski, 1981.

Original Acreage: The original acreage of wetlands is unknown for both coastal and northern forested wetlands in Michigan.

Current Acreage: Michigan's onshore coastal wetlands cover about 105,855 acres. If offshore vegetated wetlands are included, the wetlands cover 207,898 acres. Michigan's northern forested wetlands total 3.3 million acres in the upper peninsula and the northern lower peninsula.

Trends: Comparing coastal wetlands on historical topographic maps with modern maps for five representative areas on Michigan's shoreline reveals an average loss of 59 percent (41,608 out of 70,130 acres) between the turn of the century and the mid-1970s. Losses ranged from 50 percent to 77 percent in the five selected areas. Forest Service data for Michigan show a 14 percent loss in forest types likely to be wetlands between 1966 and 1980. More recent data on the rate of loss are not available.

Factors Adversely Affecting Coastal Wetlands

In the past, drainage for agriculture and for mosquito control, largely aided by the Federal government, was the primary factor leading to the demise of coastal wetlands in Michigan. Today, however, a host of activities related to urban development are responsible for the loss. These include construction of residences, highways, flood control structures, recreational facilities, navigation channels, and industrial sites. Upstream water projects also have an impact on coastal wetlands.

Residential development is the most important factor presently affecting wetlands along all of the Great Lakes. In 1975, the Great Lakes Basin Commission predicted a 26 percent increase in the amount of U.S. shoreland along the upper four Great Lakes which would be devoted to residential uses by the year 2020. This represents a 279-mile increase in developed Great Lakes shoreline. The forecasted residential development includes not only suburban expansion from larger cities such as Detroit, but vacation and second home development, as well. The latter are envisioned as including single dwellings, trailer parks, and condominium complexes. Sewage treatment facilities and highways provide the infrastructure to accommodate existing dwellings and encourage additional development.

Partially drained agricultural land or wetlands requiring draining, filling, and diking are likely candidate sites for this development. Major pumping and/or dike maintenance efforts may be needed to keep the areas from reverting to wetland, particularly during periodic high lake levels. Between 1985 and 1986, Federal expenditures on flood control and shoreline protection increased five-fold. Under natural conditions of ebb and flow, coastal wetlands can regenerate, but once dikes, bulkheads, and berms are built, vegetation no longer moves shoreward during high lake levels, and thus revegetation does not occur when the lake recedes.

Demands for recreational facilities such as marinas, harbors, and boat launches accompany the growth in vacation home development, converting biologically productive shallow water habitat to deep water. The construction and maintenance of navigation channels, important transit routes for midwestern States, have also played a key role in the disappearance of coastal wetlands. Direct losses attributable to these activities result from dredging channels and constructing turning basins and harbors. Historically, dumping dredge material into wetland areas also contributed to loses, but dumping has decreased sharply in recent years. Traffic in narrow channels can increase erosion, a problem which is exacerbated if vessel speeds are not carefully monitored. Movement of large vessels in the St. Mary's River, especially during winter ice conditions, is believed to cause erosion of adjacent wetlands. Vessel passage may also result in accelerated bulkhead construction by shoreline property owners to prevent further erosion. Bulkheads prevent the re-establishment of wetland vegetation.

Industrial conversion has been a locally important factor in wetland losses. The Great Lakes Basin Commission predicted a 40 percent increase in industrial use along the entire shoreline of the upper four Great Lakes between 1970 and 2020, involving 85 miles of shoreline. The construction of manufacturing plants and limestone mining operations, for example, is expected to increase. Disposal of industrial waste materials has had adverse effects on wetlands. Coal-fired power plants have used hundreds of wetland acres along the Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay shorelines for disposal of fly ash, and the automotive industry has used wetlands for disposal of foundry sand-castings.

Disposal of wastes not only fills in wetland areas, but reduces water quality. Although some "grandfathered" disposal activities still occur, such as Detroit Edison's fly ash disposal at Monroe, present regulatory programs no longer permit the filling of coastal wetlands for waste disposal. Nonetheless, the water contamination from past activities will continue to affect wetlands well into the future. The sites are so polluted that the wetlands cannot be restored safely, and thus they continue to be filled. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, administered by the EPA and the States, regulates solid waste disposal sites such as this. However, few comprehensive monitoring studies have been conducted on or adjacent to fly ash sites to establish the extent of degradation and legal liability. EPA has the authority both to conduct studies and to pursue responsible parties to mitigate wetland damages. Why it has not done so is not clear.

Upstream uses also affect Great Lakes wetlands. When impoundments upstream trap sediment, the sediment-dependent (deltaic) wetlands formed at the river mouth begin to shrink. Since 1913, eleven dams have been built within a 100-mile stretch of the Huron River above Pt. Mouillee. High water levels accelerate land loss: in 1940, for example, with the breach of a large protective barrier beach, erosion escalated sharply. Almost 90 percent of the 2600 acre deltaic wetland at the mouth of the Huron River at Pt. Mouillee has since been transformed to open water. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are cooperating to build a structure to replace the barrier beach and restore the wetlands. The project has had ongoing problems with high water levels, leaky dikes, and potential exposure of contaminated sediments.

Present Federal and State regulatory programs have reduced much dredging and filling of emergent coastal marshes, in part because of a general appreciation of the value of these areas. Forested and shrub wetlands, however, remain quite vulnerable to alteration by developers who often do not realize that permits are required. Additional public education regarding the benefits of forested and shrub wetlands as well as more stringent penalties for wetland violations would help to alleviate this problem.

Factors Adversely Affecting Northern Forested Wetlands

In the late 1800s, northern forested areas underwent heavy logging. Since then the forests have regenerated. Of the 15 million acres of commercial forest land now in northern Michigan, 53 percent is in private, nonindustrial holdings, 36 percent in public ownership, and 11 percent is owned by industrial forest corporations. Attempts to clear and drain forested wetlands in the upper peninsula for row and cash crop agriculture have proved economically infeasible because of the short growing season, poor soil quality, and an inability to achieve sufficient drainage. Through a program designed to aid wood products companies, the State Government is promoting Michigan's forestry industry, which accounts for $2 - $4 billion of output annually (2 percent of the State's gross product). The program involves conducting research, help in planning, offering technical assistance and worker training, and granting property tax relief. While silviculture is the major threat to northern forested wetlands, the impacts from peat mining and vacation home development could increase over time.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, wood products companies initiated three drainage demonstration projects which successfully and economically reduced water levels. Four additional drainage projects were proposed. Of the four proposals, the State, which has assumed responsibility for administering the 404 regulatory program, allowed only one and denied permits for the rest. The extent of pressure to permit drainage projects in northern Michigan will be determined by market conditions and the results of the demonstration projects. If drainage compares favorably with intensifying management on upland sites as a way to increase timber harvests, a policy of permitting drainage activities could evolve. Drainage makes the areas accessible to timber harvesting machinery, and enhances the rate of tree growth. Often native trees are replaced with red pine plantations, which support a relatively low diversity of plant and animal species. Draining the land also contributes to soil erosion, downstream flooding during spring peak flows, and reduced base flow for the remainder of the summer. These changes could affect the trout fisheries found in many northern Michigan streams.

Peat mining could also increase the drainage of forested wetlands. Michigan, with an estimated 4.5 million acres of peat lands, supplies 30 percent of U.S. demand. If demand for peat for horticultural use or as an energy source increases, these lands could come under increasing pressure. The removal of peat can degrade wetlands by releasing toxic metals from the peat, releasing organic pollutants and causing eutrophication of surface waters, increasing runoff, changing groundwater conditions, and destroying soils through fire. Michigan does have a program to oversee further development of peat mining.

The increased construction of first and second homes in the northern lower peninsula is increasing. Of the 15 Michigan counties projected to experience population growth in excess of 50 percent in the next 30 years, 14 are in the northern lower peninsula. A comparable increase in second home development is expected.

Federal Programs and Projects in Coastal Michigan

Urban Development

Residential and recreational development constitutes the greatest threat to Michigan's coastal wetlands, and there are several Federal programs which subsidize such development. HUD provides funds for residences and infrastructure through its Small Cities Program, Community Development Block Grants, and Urban Development Action Grants. In 1986, HUD spent $138.8 million in Michigan. How much was spent for projects in coastal areas or how these programs affected coastal wetlands is not known. HUD, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Farmers Home Administration all guarantee loans from private lenders for home construction or purchase; the FmHA also makes direct loans for the same purposes in rural areas. The National Flood Insurance Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency serves in practice to secure the loans. If Federal flood insurance were unavailable, private funds for coastal development would shrink considerably. Income tax deductions of property taxes and interest for primary and second homes promotes development, with much of the pressure in coastal Michigan being in coastal wetlands. Sewage treatment facilities financed by the Environmental Protection Agency3 and utility connections financed by the Rural Electric Administration sometimes destroy wetlands directly during construction, and provide the infrastructure necessary for residential and commercial development, which also often affects wetlands. All these programs constitute subsidies of private activities, subsidies from general taxpayers to local residents.

Regulatory programs are generally effective in controlling large projects which would have significant environmental effects. But smaller projects, which individually do incremental damage but collectively do significant cumulative damage, are often permitted, because the cumulative effects are not adequately considered by the regulatory authorities.

Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) grants, totaling $335 million in Michigan in 1986, lead directly to wetland destruction. Often routes and engineering alternatives to minimize wetland losses are not selected due to higher construction costs. Until recently, FHWA policy prevented most mitigation outside of the highway right-of-way and established an acre-for-acre limit to the amount of compensation (as opposed to in-kind, function-for-function mitigation). This mitigation policy reduced the probability of creating high quality wetlands.

On April 20, 1990, the Federal Highway Administrator issued an Environmental Policy Statement that may remedy some of these problems. The new policy emphasizes FHWA's commitment to the goal of no net loss of wetlands, and commits the agency "to work vigorously to preserve and, where practicable, enhance the environment." Specifically with respect to wetlands, the policy calls for "all practicable measures to avoid, minimize, mitigate, and compensate for wetland impacts." The new policy does not commit FHWA to mitigating outside highway rights-of-way or to acknowledging functional values of wetlands, but it does establish a standard of environmental sensitivity markedly different from that which the agency subscribed to in the past.

EPA regulations prohibit the use of Federal wastewater treatment grant funds for buying lands needed to mitigate wetland losses caused by the siting of sewage treatment facilities in wetland areas. These regulations may limit the extent of mitigation projects associated with the siting of such facilities.

Even if direct wetland effects were minimized or compensated for, few planning decisions take secondary impacts on wetlands into account. In rural areas, for example, new sewage treatment facilities are built to serve residences which stand on converted wetlands. Construction often provides for excess capacity, thereby promoting additional development in wetlands. Limiting the funds for excess capacity in undeveloped and rural areas could curb demand. New and expanded highways similarly facilitate additional urban development. Moreover, once planning is completed, grants made, and construction underway, follow-up on construction practices is weak. Contractors sometimes dispose of construction materials in wetlands in ignorance or defiance of the legal restrictions. Disposal problems have emerged during both highway and sewer projects near Detroit and along U.S. Route 2 in the Upper Peninsula.

Federal funds also underwrite water-based, recreational projects, which frequently occur near or in coastal wetlands. Public marinas, harbors-of-refuge, and boat launches can receive funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) administered by the National Park Service or from the Federal Aid in Fish Restoration Fund administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.4 A recent expansion of the Federal Aid program for sport fishing, known as Wallop-Breaux, slates at least 10 percent of the funding for boating and fisherman access facilities, so an increase in construction is expected. Private marina developments may receive Sea Grant research and extension services.

Federal incentives for industrial development include the various business tax incentives remaining under the 1986 Tax Reform legislation, Economic Development Administration grants amounting to $2.6 million statewide in 1986, and Small Business Administration loans. These have a lesser and more localized impact on coastal wetlands than residential and recreational developments.

Water Projects

Flood control and shore protection projects, such as the construction or repair of dikes and levees, are conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Soil Conservation Service, and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. In Michigan, spending on flood control and shore protection projects by these agencies rose from $1.9 million in 1985 to $10.8 million in 1986. Many of the projects occur in the western basin of Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay. Increased cost sharing by non-Federal sponsors (like that mandated by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986) should reduce requests for Corps assistance.5

Navigation is enhanced by dredging, lock construction and operations, and harbor improvements conducted by the Corps. All of these can have negative consequences for coastal wetlands. Ice-breaking by the U. S. Coast Guard near coastal wetlands can increase erosion and result in losses of emergent and submerged vegetation.

Dam construction and rehabilitation for hydroelectric power development is also underway in Michigan. Many of the Huron River dams are being revamped to produce power by private companies and local communities. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses these facilities, and the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) offers a direct economic stimulus for the construction of small hydroelectric projects in the form of a guaranteed market for the output of small hydroelectric projects.6

Federal Programs and Projects in Northern Forested Michigan


Several Federal programs and tax code provisions which promote forestry may induce drainage of wetlands in northern Michigan.

Forest landowners can avail themselves of two cost-sharing programs, which generally cover from 50 to 75 percent of allowed expenses. The Agricultural Conservation Program, administered by the ASCS, offers funds to plant trees and shrubs for timber production as well as for windbreaks, shelterbelts, erosion control, and wildlife. The Forestry Incentive Program, administered jointly by the Forest Service and the ASCS, permits cost sharing with owners of tracts under 1000 acres for timber production, including site preparation, planting, tree removal, and precommercial thinning.

The FmHA aids the forest industry by offering farm ownership loans to buy or develop forest land or refinance debts against forest land, soil and water loans to improve forest resources, and operating loans to help with normal costs of producing, harvesting, and processing forest products. Some of these loans can be used to finance drainage or hydrologic changes which affect wetlands. Since FmHA is the lender of last resort, all of these loans are necessarily at rates below that at which commercial lenders would have been willing to provide funds to the borrowers. The 1985 Food Security Act allows (at the Secretary's discretion) delinquent farmers to reamortize FmHA loans and delay repayment if they plant at least 50 acres of softwood timber. This feature offers an incentive to replace native hardwoods (often forested wetlands) with softwood plantations lacking in some of the functions and values of native hardwood forests.

Several provisions in the Federal income tax code allow special expensing, rapid amortization, and investment credits for forestry activities. Reforestation expenditures up to $10,000 for site preparation, seed or seedlings, tools, and labor are eligible for a 10 percent tax credit, and may be amortized over only 7 years. It is not known how great an impact these programs have on the drainage of forested wetlands. However, if it proved significant, consideration might be given to conditioning eligibility for these provisions on avoidance of wetland conversion or degradation.

Status and Prospects

A host of Federal incentives to urban development may promote the loss of coastal wetlands in Michigan and elsewhere. While the impact of each program is likely to be small, in combination grants, loan guarantees, insurance, tax incentives, infrastructure, and flood control programs may have a significant impact in coastal wetland areas. Over the next 30 years development pressure along these coasts is projected to escalate due to expected growth in Michigan's non-metropolitan areas. The population in counties bordering northern Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay are expected to grow by 50 percent during this period. Significant growth is also anticipated in counties bordering southern Lake Michigan and Lake St. Clair.

Present State and Federal regulatory programs will likely reduce the level of dredging and filling in the emergent marshes, except for water-dependent recreational facilities such as marinas and harbors. Without restrictions on their use, however, Federal funds will continue to abet the loss of wetlands through these types of recreational development. Regulatory programs have been less effective in controlling development in coastal forested and shrub wetlands.

It is difficult to estimate the extent to which restricting the Federal economic incentives for residential and recreational development will conserve coastal wetlands. It is clear, however, that based on fundamental principles of efficiency and equity, many of these Federal programs are not properly designed. The subsidies are difficult to justify under any circumstances, but they are more difficult to defend given the programs' environmental impacts. If political realities preclude elimination of the subsidies, the programs should be conducted so as to minimize impacts on wetlands and the environment.

An improvement in the wood products market in conjunction with findings that drainage for silviculture may be economically feasible and cheaper than intensified forest management of upland areas would increase development pressures in the forested wetlands of northern Michigan. The various cost-sharing and loan programs, income tax provisions, and Federal research efforts for forestry serve to reduce the cost of drainage and development of wetlands for silviculture. Although the Federal government has eliminated many incentives for agricultural conversion, the historical incentives for silviculture remain intact.

Subsidies and tax concession are often a two edged sword, and those for silviculture are no exception. In Michigan and a number of other natural areas these programs and provisions induce forestry and timbering, and in the process may alter and degrade wetland environments. But in other areas, they induce reforestation which improves the environment. Optimally, the statutes and programs should be carefully conditioned in order to target provisions appropriately and induce forestry only where it is desirable.

Peat mining poses a potential threat to Michigan's forested wetlands should energy prices rise. In this case, a well enforced regulatory program will be necessary to protect environmentally significant sites.


  1. Have Federal agencies assess the effects of their programs on wetlands. Where feasible, agencies should minimize the wetland effects of their programs.

    Many Federal programs that affect wetlands are designed and financed in a way that violates the most basic principles of public finance: efficiency and equity. They distort market signals and provide subsidies that are difficult to justify under any circumstances, but much more difficult to defend given their environmental impacts. Optimally, these programs should be redesigned in order to confront project sponsors with the full cost of their activities. This would reduce the Federal deficit, strengthen the economy by improving the allocation of resources, and conserve wetlands and other environmental resources. If political realities preclude elimination of these subsidies, the programs should be conducted so as to minimize their impacts on wetlands and the environment and mitigate wetland losses in-kind and function-for-function rather than in a limited acre-for-acre manner.

    Executive Orders 11990 and 11988, the Executive Orders on Wetland Protection and Floodplain Management, already require all Federal agencies to minimize wetland and consider floodplain impacts in conducting their programs. Although most Federal agencies instituted regulations to fulfill the requirements of the Executive Orders, some have not and some that promulgated regulations have not implemented them thoroughly. No oversight information exists on the implementation and effectiveness of the Executive Orders. Strengthening the administration and enforcement of these Executive Orders will benefit the environment, the economy, and society as a whole.


Herdendorf, C. E., C. N. Rafael and E. Jaworski. 1986. The Ecology of Lake St. Claire Wetlands: A Community Profile. Biological Report, 85 (7.7), Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 187pp.

Kolar, M. 1986. Impacts of Federal Programs on Michigan's Coastal Wetlands. Background Report. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 32pp.

Simon, B. 1986. Forested Wetlands in Northern Michigan. Backg round Document. Office of Policy Analysis, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC, 32pp.


1 These are partially or wholly in the coastal zone.

2 A gross annual economic return methodology was used to determine wetland values for consumptive and nonconsumptive uses of wetlands and replacement values were used to determine economic values of fish and waterfowl production.

3 In 1986, Michigan received $77.8 million for construction of treatment facilities.

4 The FWS receives some monies from the LWCF but these must be spent for land acquisition. The NPS, however, allocates monies from the LWCF to use for water-based, recreational projects.

5 Increased cost-sharing may bring with it the need for increased regulatory vigilance, however. For example, one community along Lake Erie turned down Corps shore protection proposals as too expensive. Instead, they invited the contractors from a large sewage treatment and sewer line project to illegally dump excess materials along their property, including wetlands. This resulted in a major enforcement action by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Corps, and EPA, with several years passing before the fill was removed.

6 PURPA requires that utilities purchase the power from projects under five megawatts at favorable rates. PURPA used to include tax and loan incentives, but these have been eliminated recently.

Return to Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands Title Page
Return to Impact of Federal Programs on Wetlands Table of Contents
Return to United States Fish and Wildlife Service
Return to Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance
For more information on the impact of Federal programs on wetlands,
contact Jon H. Goldstein by email at or
by telephone at 202-208-4077