Imagine being a skier waiting all summer and fall for fresh powder. You obsessively check your forecast apps, check your equipment, wax your skis. Finally, that magic day arrives. You drive to the trailhead only to find a sign that says, “trail closed due to snow.” That’s how Michigan surfers felt this summer when a proposed Department of Natural Resources executive order would have restricted water entry from state park and recreation areas on the Great Lakes during high wave conditions.
The wildest wilderness in Michigan is the water that surrounds it: the Great Lakes. Michigan’s coastline stretches for 3,288 miles – second only to Alaska in the United States – along four of the five Great Lakes, themselves encompassing 94,600 square miles. A third of Michigan’s more than 100 state parks provide access to the Great Lakes, where full wetsuit-clad and ice-bearded surfers can access waves provided when the wind, fetch, and all the stars align.
Already in 2021, though, the Great Lakes have claimed 83 lives through drowning, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. Since 2010, more than 1,000 people have drowned in the Great Lakes. None of them were surfers, however.
Some of these drownings occurred when waders and swimmers were caught by rip currents or underestimated high waves. In some cases, waders still entered the water while rescues were underway. This prompted the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to propose a land use order in July to restrict water access from Michigan State Park and Recreation Area beaches during red flag days, described in the order as when waves reach 3-5 feet and dangerous rip currents exist.
However, those are the same conditions that support surfing in Michigan, and when first proposed it looked like an end to the sport at the most abundant source of public access points to the Great Lakes in the state, and a bad precedent for local county and municipal beaches to follow.
Then Michigan’s surfing community got organized. Quickly.
I first saw a news article about the proposed order shared by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project on July 10 and shared in the Great Lakes Surfing Association and Surfrider Foundation Lake Michigan groups on Facebook. Lively discussions followed, and several of us reached out to Sarah Damron, regional manager for the Great Lakes at the Surfrider Foundation.
The proposed order was scheduled for an introduction at the July 15, 2021 Natural Resources Commission, so we organized talking points in the discussion groups, the Surfrider Foundation sent in a letter to the Michigan DNR, and several surfers attended the in-person meeting to voice their concerns about the proposed order. Some shared their stories of helping to rescue swimmers in distress, emphasized the knowledge of waves and currents required for surfing the Great Lakes, and urged – at the least – an exemption for surfers and other board sports from the water entry ban.
One of these surfers was Surfrider Foundation member Tim Haadsema of Grand Haven, Michigan, who surfs at Grand Haven State Park. After the meeting, Tim kept the Facebook groups updated with conversations he was having with Michigan DNR staff, who had reached out to him after his public comment. He shared draft exemption language the DNR adapted from surfing exemptions for some Chicago municipal beaches, which the Surfrider Chicago Chapter had negotiated over a decade ago. Surfers in the Facebook groups provided suggestions on the proposed language, like eliminating a requirement to get written permission from Michigan DNR staff for the exemption to apply, and Tim relayed that back to Michigan DNR staff.
In the meantime, the Surfrider Foundation organized a virtual wave-rider stakeholder forum on Zoom to discuss the proposed order and come to a consensus as a community. 26 surfers, including Dave Benjamin and Bobby Pratt from the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, discussed the order and proposed better alternatives for preventing drownings.
“The flag system is a tool for lifeguards to use, not a replacement for lifeguards,” Benjamin said.
Marty Karish of Surf Movement pointed out that additional factors like swim area placement near dredged channels created rip current dangers that could be addressed by changing buoy placement. And we recognized that most of us in the Great Lakes got our love for the waters by splashing through its waves long before we ever thought about surfing them. We recommended that, if an order was to be adopted, it should have a clear exception for water sports using proper flotation and safety equipment, but that hiring lifeguards would be a better option than banning water entry. These recommendations were sent to the Michigan DNR in an official comment letter from the Surfrider Foundation.
The next day, the Michigan DNR released an amended draft of the land use order. The amended draft contained several changes, including raising the wave-height trigger to 8 feet and an exception to the water entry ban for “board sport recreational individuals accessing the water for the purpose of surfing utilizing a self-propelled wave riding board, including longboard and shortboard; kiteboarding; body/”boogie” boarding with swim fins; and, skimboarding.”
It also specified that anyone entering the water for these activities will be “at their own risk” and they will follow commonly accepted safety rules like controlling boards, using a leash, and appropriate cold weather gear as conditions dictate. In the Great Lakes, conditions dictate using that gear most of the days with surfable waves.
In September, Michigan DNR Director Dan Eichinger announced his intention to sign the amended land use order with the surfing exception, though he has not officially done so yet. It will take effect in May, 2022. What effect the original wording of the water entry ban would have had on surfing in Michigan is hard to predict, but keeping people out of the water any time the waves hit 3-5 feet at Michigan State Parks would have restricted surfing on the best days to surf. We won’t have to find out, though, thanks to the quick response of Michigan’s small but growing surfing community and the leadership of the Surfrider Foundation.
“As an organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our coasts and waves, the Surfrider Foundation recognizes as an imperative the right of all people to access beaches and waters held in the public trust,” said Sarah Damron, Great Lakes Manager for Surfrider Foundation. “Public access to coastal resources comes under threat from a variety of angles–from privatization of public spaces, to social constructs about who belongs at the beach, to policies that effectively bar people from reaching the beach or getting in the water–and the Surfrider Foundation rallies its supporters to take action to address these threats and protect access for all.”
The Michigan DNR should be commended, too, for listening to the surfing community in creating an exemption for board sports. I don’t believe they intended to restrict surfing in the original order; they were trying to prevent drownings. When the surfing community engaged in the public comment process – with data, with knowledge, with personal experience, and with respect – the department listened and amended the order to do what they thought was necessary to advance their goal without restricting access for surfing and other board sports.
”The fundamental purpose of the land use order on beach access is to protect human safety when conditions demand it. Having this authority would give us one more tool to help prevent drownings on the Great Lakes on beaches that the DNR manages,” said John Pepin, deputy public information officer for the Michigan DNR. “We appreciate the input surfers and others have had to the public comment we’ve received on this order. Public comment helps state government make better decisions.”
Still, the drama may not be over. Michigan’s Republican Legislature has introduced a bill, HB 5342, to strip the Michigan DNR of its authority to restrict water entry from state managed beaches due to wave conditions. The bill has yet to receive a hearing but after the engaged public comment process and the headway made with the DNR, the proposal to remove its authority to restrict wave entry altogether seems like using a woodchipper for a whittling project. The right answer lies somewhere in the middle, according to Dave Benjamin.
“We have all of this political theater going on over the last 4 months over an issue, the Beach Flag System, which either way it goes, does very little to save lives on Lake Michigan beaches in Michigan,” he wrote on the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project’s Facebook page. “Using the Beach Flag System without lifeguards is absolutely, 100% doing it wrong according to widely approved and commonly accepted water safety best practices for open water surf beaches.”
The surfing community didn’t get everything it suggested – particularly the launch of a lifeguard program within the DNR – but it’s a start. Surfing on high-wave days can continue – with common safety practices – and the DNR is more aware of Michigan’s surfing community and more likely to engage with it before issuing future orders that affect surfing.
This is how a public comment period should work, and this episode can serve as an example for other outdoor recreation communities in how to organize to engage with a natural resources agency. Organize the local outdoor recreation community, share information, pull together a forum to share ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and – most importantly – show up to participate in the agency’s public comment process.
Out of this coalescing moment, the Surfrider Foundation Northern Michigan Chapter – the only chapter in Michigan – is re-launching so that it’s ready for the next time that a grassroots group of surfers needs to organize to protect public access to the Great Lakes and their cold, choppy, beautiful, wind-swelled waves.
“It can’t be overstated how crucial access is for our region’s surfers and other water enthusiasts as stewards of conservation efforts on the Great Lakes through our regular use and monitoring of these waters,” said J.D. Wilson, acting chair of the Northern Michigan Chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
The leaves have changed colors in the Great Lakes, which means the waves that Michigan surfers wait all summer for are here. We’re checking our forecast apps, looking for some consistent winds in the 15-20 mile range or more from the right direction, for the right duration, at the right location. When all that happens, we’re driving to the beach, struggling into our wetsuits, and waxing down our boards.
And, for now at least, we don’t have to worry about a sign at the state park beach telling us that we can’t do the one thing we’ve been dreaming about doing all year.