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'It doesn't make sense'

Private pilot George Stevens of Leelanau Township would love nothing more than to land his airplane on the old grass airstrip out on North Fox Island, just as he has so many times in the past.

But he hasn’t been able to do so for more than a year because the State of Michigan, which has owned the island since 2000, will no longer let him and other pilots keep the grass mowed or perform other maintenance to keep the airstrip open.
George Stevens of Leelanau Township, who isn’t happy that the state won’t let him and other private pilots maintain an airstrip on the island.George Stevens of Leelanau Township, who isn’t happy that the state won’t let him and other private pilots maintain an airstrip on the island.
“It’s not like we’re asking the state to spend any money on the island,” Stevens said as he wheeled his Cessna 172 out of its hangar near a farm field off Alpers Road. “We’d do all the work for free – just like we always used to. It doesn’t make sense that the state won’t let us do this. The island belongs to the public after all.”

About 25 miles out into Lake Michigan off the northwest of the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, North Fox Island has always been considered “remote.” With no natural harbor, there is nowhere to land or anchor a boat safely near the island. Access to the island under the best of circumstances is difficult.

It was formerly owned by developer David Johnson, who built the massive Bay Harbor project near Petoskey. Johnson also owned much of South Fox Island, and in 2000 tried to strike a deal with the state which would have given him all of South Fox in exchange for North Fox. In the end, Johnson ended up gaining some land and consolidating some of his holdings on South Fox – and selling all 837 acres of North Fox Island to the State of Michigan for $2.2 million.

After it purchased the island, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) noted that the “limited interior trails” and some 5.2 miles of undeveloped shoreline “provide easy access to all parts of the island” but that “surrounding waters are generally too shallow to allow deep-drafting watercraft suitable harbor.”

As for the airstrip, the MDNR noted in 2000: “there presently exists a grassy landing-strip on the northern portion of the tract but continued use of the landing strip is a topic for further review and discussion.” The DNR also stated: “More detailed management plans will be formulated in the future and will include input from the public.”

Stevens said he is unaware that the State of Michigan has ever held any public hearings on the fate of the air strip on North Fox Island.

According to MDNR resource management deputy Mindy Koch, reached by phone in Lansing, the decision to close the airstrip on North Fox Island was made when the state purchased the island from Johnson.

“I don’t believe it was ever the intent of the department to maintain the airstrip,” Koch said. “It’s true that the closing did not happen immediately – but the airstrip is currently closed and has been for some time now.”

Koch said she met in Lansing last month with Stevens and other pilots from throughout the region who have an interest in maintaining the air strip and accessing North Fox Island by air.

“We explained to the pilots that in order for them to do work on state land, they need permission,” Koch said. “And because this would be a long-term, ongoing effort, a lease would probably be the best tool to accomplish this.”

She said the use of the airstrip would be primarily for “recreational” purposes. She said the state has lease agreements with snowmobile clubs, for example, interested in maintaining trails on state land.

“Any agreement we would have with regard to landing private aircraft on North Fox Island for recreational purposes might be similar,” Koch said. “The groups or individuals who want to do this need to make an application to do so. Then, the department will study their proposal carefully, and the state might then consider some type of lease agreement that could make this work. The ball is in their court.”

Stevens says he’s not prepared to enter into such an agreement with the state on his own authority, and is hopeful the county or some other unit of government might step in.
AN IMAGE taken from space several years ago shows where the airstrip is located on North Fox Island.AN IMAGE taken from space several years ago shows where the airstrip is located on North Fox Island.
Indeed, last year Stevens convinced the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners to adopt a resolution of support for the idea that volunteers might be allowed to maintain the airstrip and trails on North Fox Island.

“It’s not impossible for that to happen,” Koch said, “but we definitely would need a lease agreement with some group or local unit of government to make that happen.”

Leelanau County’s elected officials in Lansing, state Sen. Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau) and Rep. Dan Scripps (D-Leland), both said they are aware of the desire of private pilots and others to land on North Fox Island. The legislators generally support the effort.

“It is public land, so the public ought to have access to it,” Scripps said.
McManus agreed.

“If the public can’t have access to public lands,” McManus said, “then the state should not buy the land.”
The chairman of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, Mary Tonneberger, represents District No. 4 that includes North Fox Island. Tonneberger said that she, too, was aware of the problem, but had not been asked to take any action since adopting the resolution last year.
“I haven’t heard anything since then,” Tonneberger said.

“I don’t understand why we just can’t go out there and mow the airstrip at our own expense,” Stevens said. “The way things are, North Fox Island might as well be on the far side of the moon.”

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