A Brutal Attack On The People Of Beaver Island

BEAVER ISLAND, Mich. - You might imagine it has been difficult for a reporter to be isolated up here on this small island at the top of Lake Michigan while the whole world marveled at the historic spectacle of the people of the Soviet Union throwing off the shackles of communism.


Cable News Network is everywhere. And when the Yeltsin-Gorbachev drama slowed, we had our own important decisions to make: whether to eat the fresh-picked apples and blackberries after a swim or bake them into pies for dessert.

It's not all fun and games up here, however. We've been wrestling with our own weighty issues, not least how to respond to an attack on the island's integrity. It came earlier this year when The Michigan Archaeologist published a supposed expose called "The Making of the Mysterious Beaver Island Sun Circle."

Admittedly, this journal does not boast the circulation of a supermarket tabloid. Some here thought we could ignore the assault. But Mikhail Gorbachev has taught us the risks of temporizing, and the article's four authors, purportedly reputable scientists, have launched such an unjustified Scud attack on the island's credibility that it cannot go unanswered.

Challenging the careful reporting of reputable journalists not only on The Beaver Beacon but on the Detroit dailies as well, they seek to debunk reports that a veritable American Stonehenge, in the form of an ancient Indian astronomical device, might have been found

three years ago among the stones of a rock-strewn Beaver Island meadow.

The field, previously indistinguishable from a hundred others on the island, has become a source of great interest and enjoyment; almost any day, you can walk out there and see people staring at the ground and counting their paces, as they try to determine for themselves if this might have been a solar calendar or astronomical observatory.

But the spoilsport academics are determined to deny us our innocent recreation. They will have none of it. The article purports to be scientific, but their pique is evident throughout.

They complain of a guide who let them "wander aimlessly in the woods" on one occasion, and they remark with bitterness that when the Beaver Island Historical Society played host to a weekend seminar at the site in 1989, "the authors, needless to say, were not invited, although all of their colleagues in this part of the Midwest were. Doubters and nay-sayers were clearly not welcome."

We don't need that kind of visitor; we have more distinguished company these days.

Last Monday, Pat Quinn, the president of Spartan Stores, paid his first call on McDonough's Market, which has been the main business establishment in the mighty metropolis of St. James for most of this century.

The Spartan chain, based in Grand Rapids, has 502 stores. But by the time he left, Quinn had heard the message from dozens of islanders that Bill and Tim McDonough, the third generation of owners of this fine establishment, are the greatest assets in his chain.

No sooner was he gone than Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) came over for a day. Engler won a close, upset victory over the two-term Democratic incumbent, Jim Blanchard, last November. Blanchard was not a bad governor, but in eight years in office, he never managed to set foot on Beaver Island. Engler got here in his eighth month as governor, so clearly he has his priorities right.

The governor's tour was carefully arranged to give him a sense of both the island's pristine woods and beaches, and its accordion-pleated dust roads. The hope is that he went back to Lansing committed to keeping the bulldozers out of nature's way, while perhaps introducing one or two of them on the washboard that we laughingly call "King's Highway."

Meantime, the islanders are stirring themselves to preserve one of the very special places, known as Gull Harbor. This is a 15-acre tract of stony Lake Michigan beach front shading up into cedar-covered dune land, behind the harbor lighthouse and close to town. It is a favorite area for bikers and hikers.

The owner of the property put it on the market last spring, and a township supervisor, Lisabeth Clapham, has taken the lead in trying to save it for future generations, rather than letting it be converted into building lots.

Showing that not all scientists are green-meanies, volunteer experts from the Central Michigan University biological station on the island compiled a report detailing the ecological importance of the Gull Harbor site, not only for its fossil record of the island's creation, but as breeding grounds for freshwater sponges and feeding grounds for threatened terns.

After a spring visit here, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., joined the effort. He and Clapham have enticed the Michigan Nature Conservancy to advance the $80,000 needed to preserve Gull Harbor - provided private gifts and pledges are received to replenish the fund the Conservancy maintains for just such emergency purchases of critical tracts.

Fund-raising has begun. Tax-deductible gifts may be sent to the Nature Conservancy-Gull Harbor Fund, Box 328, St. James, Mich., 49782.

"Doubters and nay-sayers" need not write.

(Copyright, 1991, Washington Post Writers Group)

David S. Broder's column appears Sunday and Wednesday on The Times' editorial page.