Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

New books tell of doomed ship, threatened habitats

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By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service

LANSING – The Edmund Fitzgerald is the best-known of the Great Lakes’ doomed ships, but the freighter’s demise with its entire crew off Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula is by no means the state’s only such maritime disaster.

Andrew Kantar, a Ferris State University professor, tells another such story, that of the ill-fated freighter Daniel J. Morrell. It sank in 1966 off the tip of the Thumb in Lake Huron, northwest of Harbor Beach.

“Each of the Great Lakes has its own tragic history, and Lake Huron’s violent moods have become legendary,” Kantar writes in “Deadly Voyage: The S.S. Daniel J. Morrell Tragedy” (Michigan State University Press, $16.95).

Like the Edmund Fitzgerald, the Morrell went down in a brutal November storm.

Unlike the Fitzgerald, there was a survivor. As the ship sank, four shipmates made it onto a life raft, but Dennis Hale was the only one to live through the 38 hours it took before a Coast Guard rescue helicopter spotted the raft.

Twenty-six bodies were recovered. Two others were never found.

“All that was left were the families, the fathers and mothers, wives and children, sisters and brothers. It was a human wreckage of loss and emptiness,” Kantar says.

While Kantar writes of a life-and-death struggle on the water, Ryan O’Connor, Michael Kost and Joshua Cohen direct their attention to a life-and-death struggle on land.

In their profusely illustrated “Prairies and Savannas in Michigan: Rediscovering Our Natural Heritage” (Michigan State University Press, $24.95) the three ecologists explore the history and future of two vital ecosystems.

Prairies are dominated by broad-leaved plants and grasses with few trees. Savannas are habitats between forest and prairie with a partial canopy of trees.

In the first half of the 1800s, savannas and prairies covered 7 percent of the state, primarily in the southern third of the Lower Peninsula. Fires, whether started by lightning or by Native Americans, maintained the openness of the land and its ability to regenerate and support wildlife.

Today, however, their survival is in almost as much jeopardy as was the Daniel J. Morrell. Largely to blame are farming, logging, development, drainage systems, overuse of groundwater and the absence of fire, according to the authors, who work for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

Invasive species such as purple loosestrife, buckthorn and garlic mustard also play a damaging role
In Oakland County –  “named for its historic, stately oak openings” – remaining patches of savanna are being converted to housing developments.

And Prairie Ronde once covered more than 300 square miles of Kalamazoo County. Now its prairie has shrunk to “three isolated remnants,” with “only a handful” of once-profuse oak openings left.

“Tiny, tattered pieces of these lost landscapes can still be found in the unmowed portions of old cemeteries, on open hillsides and along railroad tracks, which were formerly maintained by fires sparked from passing trains,” they write.

The book also discusses the need for restoration and preservation projects, such as controlled burnings, controlling invasive species and allowing beaver to return and build dams. As an example, it cites the Nature Conservancy’s Ives Road Fen preserve in Lenawee County, where hundreds of volunteers have worked to restore biodiversity.

Prairies and savannas “serve as natural open space, important habitat for rare species, areas for recreation, sites for educational study and places of spiritual inspiration,” the authors say.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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