Protecting Rivers

U.S. Forest Service’s alcohol ban on three rivers gets pushback, postponed.
Canoers stock photo
Three canoers travel leisurely downriver in northern Michigan, where an alcohol ban has been proposed on sections of the Pine, Manistee and Au Sable rivers. Photography courtesy iStock

Summer paddling can be a serene experience, an opportunity to commune with nature or an exciting challenge negotiating rapids or fast-moving currents on twisty streams. But all too often, those same natural environments are disturbed by loud, obnoxious paddlers and anglers who have been drinking and also may trash the stream with litter like beer cans, bait boxes and other debris.

Some years ago, I was wading in a peaceful stretch of the Pere Marquette River fishing trout and had the stream to myself; it was a beautiful morning. About an hour out, I thought I heard tom-toms in the distance and smiled inwardly, thinking “probably kids at summer camp,” fondly remembering the days.

But the steady beat got louder as the minutes passed, and 15 minutes later, a flotilla of aluminum canoes passed me by; the adults were yelling to each other and thumping the canoe bottom in unison with their paddles, a Native American drum beat. They were having a good time. One hoisted a beer and yelled, “Have a good day” as they passed.

They hardly recognized the disturbance they caused. A peaceful morning had been shattered and the fish had scattered. It was not an isolated incident.

Public complaints about these behaviors and much worse on Michigan rivers prompted Huron-Manistee National Forests staff to propose an alcohol ban last February, on popular sections of three rivers that run through the national forest, the Pine, Manistee and Au Sable, all of which are National Wild and Scenic Rivers. The ban was slated to go into effect this summer but has since been postponed until 2020 in response to intense pushback from legislators, anglers, paddlers and local businesses.

It would have prohibited the possession of alcohol within 200 feet of the river segments during the peak season from May 24-Sept. 2. Private lands, developed campgrounds and designated campsites within those river corridors were exempted, according to the forest service, but violations were to be punishable by a maximum fine of $5,000 and imprisonment for up to five years.

A petition opposing the ban at has 53,000 signatures as of this writing.

“We got a substantial amount of negative feedback and a small but equally passionate amount from people who said, ‘It’s about time,’” said Nate Peeters, spokesman for the national forests. Peeters said a stakeholders task force has been established to explore alternatives to a ban, which they will implement and test this summer, hoping to curtail a variety of bad behaviors, some loud, some lewd, some illegal and dangerous, and all unwanted.

“It’s not the alcohol, it’s the behavior (we’re concerned about),” Peeters said, adding that if effective solutions are not found, the forest service will proceed with the ban next year to maintain and protect the natural character of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers.


The proposed alcohol ban would affect these river segments:

  • The Au Sable River between Mio Dam Pond and 4001 Canoe Landing.
  • The Manistee River between Tippy Dam and the Huron-Manistee National Forests’ boundary.
  • The Pine River between Elm Flats and Low Bridge.

Howard Meyerson is the managing editor for Michigan BLUE Magazine.

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