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GRAND RAPIDS, MI — A Frankfort man has been convicted on federal misdemeanor charges after he diverted the Platte River with a shovel and rocks.

Andrew Blair Howard, 63, was found guilty on one count apiece of tampering and vandalism following a Feb. 7 bench trial before federal magistrate Ray Kent in Grand Rapids, where prosecutors presented footage of the man building a dam by hand.

Howard, a local fisherman, was charged last May following a National Park Service investigation into the August 2022 change at the mouth of the popular river, which empties into Lake Michigan at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

According to evidence presented during the trial, Howard rechanneled the river to cut through a sandy spit which had built up along the Platte Point shoreline and made recreational access to and from Platte Bay nearly impossible for boats.

The sandy spit had built up over several years to the liking of beachgoers and park managers — who halted 49 years of annual dredging at the river mouth in 2017 — but it hampered boat access at the onset of the annual fall coho salmon fishing run.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials said the changes benefitted the river by lowering the water level upstream and helped alleviate a public safety concern by enabling rescue boats to quickly access the bay.

The Park Service saw things differently and reacted strongly after Howard threw a wrench in federal plans to excavate decades of dredge spoils and built more habitat for piping plovers, an endangered shorebird which is making recovery strides.

In a statement, U.S. District Attorney Mark Totten called the prosecution a matter of protecting Michigan’s “natural treasures.”

Mr. Howard had a policy dispute with the National Park Service and took matters into his own hands, breaking the law rather than using lawful means to advocate for his position,” Totten said. “His actions resulted in significant financial and ecological harm and altered the landscape so many enjoyed.”

Calls to Howard and his attorney were not immediately returned.

Sentencing in the case has not been scheduled.

According to a January trial brief submitted by prosecutors, a park ranger witnessed Howard using a shovel and stacking rocks to dam the river on Aug. 15, 2022.

The ranger’s body camera footage and receipts from the Frankfort Hardware store where the shovel was purchased were presented as evidence during the trial.

Other witnesses testified they saw Howard build the dam.

According to the ranger, Howard dammed the river after being unable to navigate his boat into the bay that morning and later caught a coho salmon once the mouth was deepened.

After Howard built a dam, the natural power of the river widened the previously shallow, meandering river mouth to about 200 feet and resulted in an “an influx in the number of fishermen that came to Platte River boat launch to take advantage of the favorable conditions of access created by the new channel,” according to the trial brief.

The spit has begun to reform over the past 17 month.

In December 2023, the Park Service excavated the beach to remove 2,000 cubic yards of rocky sand as part of a $328,500 project to build piping plover habitat.

Park manager say the new habitat areas may result in newly restricted access at the popular beach if a plover decides to nest within new protective berms.

Dredging has been a point of conflict between federal, state and local officials since the Park Service ceased dredging in 2013 and stopped the DNR from doing it in 2017.

The Park Service called the pebble-strewn beach an “aesthetic irritant” to swimmers in its 2016 environmental assessment, which concluded that putting dredge spoils on the beach prevented dune vegetation from becoming re-established.

Local officials say a fully naturalized river mouth impedes boat access to the bay for fishing and emergency rescue craft.

Platte Point is a high-use area where multiple swimmers have died and marine rescue must now either launch from Empire, Frankfort or come via helicopter.

The Park Service has resisted proposals to establish a nearby alternate launch site directly onto the bay at the end of Tiesma Road out of concern it would cut through habitat for piping plovers and other threatened or endangered dune plants.

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