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Michigan National Guard wants to double Camp Grayling training land

Camp Grayling
The Michigan National Guard wants access to state land to expand its Camp Grayling training facility from 148,000 acres to roughly 320,000. (Photo courtesy of Michigan National Guard)

May 18: Map reveals Michigan National Guard’s proposed Camp Grayling expansion

The Michigan National Guard wants to more than double the footprint of its Camp Grayling military training complex in Crawford, Kalkaska and Otsego counties in northern Michigan. Under the plan, the Guard is seeking permission to use surrounding  state-owned property to bolster capacity for modern training that requires vast swaths of land.

Col. Scott Meyers, the camp’s commander, confirmed the proposed expansion to Bridge Michigan on Tuesday, noting that the Guard has requested access to land managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in hopes of expanding the 148,000 camp to roughly 320,000 acres.

 

The expansion includes land in all directions stemming from the existing training grounds, Meyers said. It would remain in DNR ownership and management, and the Guard would use it for low-impact exercises while keeping all land open to public use except when it’s being used by the military.

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In most instances, he said, military use would involve small portions of the proposed training area during “a few weeks out of the year.”

It’s the latest proposed expansion of a military facility founded in 1913 on land donated by Rasmus Hanson, a local lumber baron. Since then, Camp Grayling’s footprint has expanded to include tens of thousands of acres leased from the state. 

The latest expansion proposal, which has yet to be widely circulated, was met with optimism by some who see the military training facility near Interstate-75 in northern lower Michigan as a point of community pride and an economic boon for surrounding communities, and trepidation by some homeowners, fishers and other river users who worry about impacts to recreation, public access and livability in an area beloved by outdoor enthusiasts.

In an interview Tuesday, Anglers of the Au Sable President Joe Hemming said the group learned of the proposal days ago, when a DNR staffer emailed to schedule a meeting with local river advocates, DNR staff and military officials about the proposal. 

DNR officials did not respond to requests for comment by Bridge Michigan on Tuesday.

Hemming said his group knows few details about the proposal, but “we're very concerned for the river and we want to know more about what this planned expansion is.”

It’s not Camp Grayling’s first attempt to expand into state land in the heavily-forested area storied for its trout streams and, more recently, plagued by PFAS contamination from Camp Grayling.

The National Guard, which serves a dual state and federal mission, scrapped a proposed 2014 expansion amid opposition from local landowners, fishing groups and others who balked at a proposed training area that included land adjacent to the AuSable and Manistee rivers. 

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“If this is anything like last time,” Hemming said, “It doesn't sound good, and it doesn't bode well for the river.”

The Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center is the country’s largest national guard training facility, spanning 148,000 acres of land and 337 square kilometers of restricted airspace. 

The facility also is a local economic engine, drawing trainees and staff who frequent area restaurants and sleep in local motels. More than 200 area residents work full-time at the camp, which generates more than $20 million annually to the local economy, according to published National Guard figures. 

And Grayling’s important role in training U.S. military forces is a point of pride for some residents and public officials.

“Where else do you get to see the military in action?” said Grayling Township Supervisor Lacey Stephan III, whose jurisdiction surrounds much of the training center. 

The camp and its occupants have “mostly been great neighbors,” over the years, Stephan said, contributing to local causes and funding the area fire department from May through September. As for the noise from bombing exercises and artillery training? 

“You get used to it,” he said. 

Residents of the area have become accustomed to a visible, audible military presence, from aircraft flying overhead to occasional booms in the woods or traffic jams caused by military convoys. Some are more tolerant of the disruption than others. 

David Smith, president of the Au Sable River Property Owners Association, said he wants to see details of the expansion plan before drawing conclusions. Top of mind for him: Which lands are being targeted for military use? 

“If we're going to have a military, we want a trained military and they’ve gotta do it some place,” Smith said. “I'm not a total not-in-my-backyard kind of guy. But there are issues with the river and pollution and degradation.”

Much of the impetus for the proposed expansion stems from the Department of Defense’s new focus on electronic, cyber and space warfare, Meyers said. The expansion, he said, would make Michigan unique among U.S. states with military training facilities, in that the state would be capable of training troops in land, air, maritime, space and cyber domains, during all four seasons.

But modern cyber warfare training requires lots of property to avoid, for instance, inadvertently jamming the radio signals of other groups training nearby. Thus, the proposal to use a vast swath of state land. 

Meyers said he could not provide a map because the military’s map file is too large to share via email, but said the proposed expansion would involve lands directly adjacent to the existing training facility, surrounding it on all sides. 

He said military activities on the proposed state land expansion would not involve bombing, shooting, tanks, new buildings, fences or closing lands to the public. 

“This is sending out guys in, maybe, humvees and tents and antennas…sleeping in the woods, training in the woods,” he said, and no activities would take place adjacent to the AuSable or Manistee rivers.

Camp Grayling would use “geofencing” to prevent interference with neighbors’ cyber signals,” Meyers said.

The DNR would still own and manage the land, he said, with the military chipping in money for things like invasive species management and tree trimming along trails. 

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While local public officials called the facility a good neighbor, Camp Grayling has also had issues both minor and major over the years. A toxic PFAS plume originating from the base is moving through the area’s groundwater and into streams, and training exercises have caused large fires in recent years.

But Stephan contends camp officials are proactive about dealing with those issues, and noted that cyber warfare exercises are unlikely to risk widespread environmental contamination. He supports any expansion that occurs on state land, which he calls “wasted space anyway,” so long as it comes with minimal impacts on area homeowners. 

He said a lot of people who live, vacation or retire in Grayling did so after training in the area for two weeks. “Otherwise,” he said, “they’d have never found out about this hidden gem in northern Michigan.”

Meyers said the Michigan National Guard aims to make a full public announcement soon, followed by public forums in June and July.

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