REPUBLIC – Beaver Lake Road – leading out to the public entrance of the Republic Wetlands Preserve – is little more than a dirt two-track, meandering over soft hills and down through low passes where marshes foster the growth of cattails and tall grass threatens to encroach on the trail.

Sporadic camps and cabins appear ahead and then fall back into forest as Republic Township supervisor Gary Johnson pilots his black pickup toward the wetlands’ gate. Horseflies swarm in the afternoon heat, which seems to have burned away the storm clouds slung low in the sky this morning. Signs come into focus, affixed to trees, conveying information and instruction to what little traffic comes out this way. A couple of bullet holes decorate one sign.

“Signs can be dangerous,” Johnson said, deadpan. “Every once in awhile you’ve got to shoot it.”

Johnson loves the wetlands preserve and wants more people to be able to enjoy it. His plan? Connect it to the Iron Ore Heritage Trail.

“It’s as beautiful a thing as ::you can find that Mother Nature built,” Johnson said of the wetlands. “It will rival any wildlife scene you can find in the United States.”

The wetlands preserve boasts 2,300 acres of land with diverse vegetation and an array of wildlife, including cranes, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, gray wolves, black bears, bobcats and coyotes. Within the preserve are 670 acres of man-made wetlands – created from the tailing ponds at the site of the former open-pit Republic Mine – which belong to Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. Johnson is trying to work out an agreement with Cliffs to lease their portion of the wetlands to Republic Township for use by the public “for perpetuity.”

Johnson said DNR and National Park Service officials he’s spoken with said a corporation leasing or selling land while retaining its credits is a common practice.

“We are hoping to work out a mutually agreeable process where we can get Heritage Trail access to the wetlands because CCI (Cliffs Natural Resources, formerly Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.) did such a beautiful job out there,” Johnson said. He said that the township has “made overtures to purchase those wetlands from CCI” – which lie just to the east of the Heritage Trail – using a DNR Trust Fund grant, but “to allow CCI to keep their green credits and any developable green credits, because they desperately need them for the Tilden mine and Empire mine.”

Cliffs Natural Resources Manager of Public Affairs for North America Dale Hemmila said that incorporation of the wetlands into the Heritage Trail network is something Cliffs “would not be opposed to discussing,” but said that the conversation would have to include officials from the DNR as well as representatives from Republic Mountain Lake LLC., which bought the Republic Mine – but not the wetlands – from Cliffs at the end of 2006.

Hemmila said that he has not had any contact from Republic Township regarding their plans for the wetlands, and said there were a couple of questions that need to be answered: how the wetlands would fit into the Heritage Trail network, and whether Cliffs would be able to retain the wetland credits they have from the site.

Cliffs was required as a condition of current and future mine expansions at their Tilden and Empire mines to create a “wetland bank” for the “compensatory wetland mitigation” of any wetlands Cliffs which have been or will be disrupted by the expansions. They began turning the Republic Mine’s tailing ponds into wetlands in 1997 and work continued through 2000.

Hemmila said that they had the option in the mid 90s of doing the bare minimum mitigation required, or doing something more. He said Cliffs chose to do more, contracting downstate King & MacGregor Environmental Inc. to consult on the project. Wetland monitoring was conducted after each phase of the construction until 2004, and the reclamation was considered a success.

The main problem with connecting the wetlands to the Heritage Trail, both Johnson and Hemmila said, is that as a condition of Cliffs’ conservation easement of the property to the state – and for Cliffs to maintain their mitigation credits at the site – the area is not allowed to be developed in any way. This includes the installation of foot bridges, the creation of paved trails or the building of any structures. Johnson said the only good way to currently access the wetlands is from the southwest corner, at the end of Beaver Lake Road.

Iron Ore Heritage Recreation Authority Executive Director Carol Fulsher said that while the focus of the IOHRA is on building “the spine of the trail,” she’d love to see Republic connect the Heritage Trail to the wetlands.

“Going into the wetlands is a wonderful idea,” Fulsher said. “I’ve been out there several times. I think it’s a beautiful, quiet place to be. We’d love that connection, but it’s not something the recreation authority is going to take on quite yet. But if Republic Township wants to take that on, I think that’s wonderful to connect to the spine of the trail.”

Construction on the two and a half mile section of the Republic portion of the Heritage Trail, which Fulsher said will run from downtown Republic to the Humboldt mine, will begin “as soon as possible” in 2014. Fulsher said the portion will offer a unique set of challenges.

“It’s trickier out here because this is truly going to be a multi-use trail,” she said. “It’s going to be motorized and nonmotorized. It’s going to be different from the trails we’ve done where we’ve tried to separate (them).”

Fulsher also said the state-owned corridor of the railroad grade, on which part of the trail will be built, will also offer “some specific challenges.”

“We have real issues in this area because … even though the state owns a 100-foot corridor (of the railroad grade), the usable part of it is probably 20 feet in most instances,” she said.

Johnson and his employees have been working diligently over the past two years – using about $75,000 of the township’s general fund money and with help and donations of equipment and man-hours from A. Lindberg & Sons Inc. and Republic-based Niemi Excavating Inc. – on a future section of the Heritage Trail that borders the north side of School Lake.

“We have put dirt down through … the areas that were somewhat bad before to allow people to currently use it, knowing that this is being developed,” Johnson said. “We’ve put in a considerable amount of man-hours, equipment hours, hauling and leveling on the (School Lake) portion back there.” Johnson said that he was then approached by Fulsher and members of the IOHRA who asked why he was putting in so much work when the IOHRA can do it all with funds from a DNR Trust Fund grant. Johnson said OK.

Fulsher said the IOHRA currently has a $281,000 grant from the DNR Trust Fund, which they will match with $120,000 of their own funds, to do the two and a half miles of trail in Republic Township, as well as two and a half miles of trail from Ishpeming through Tilden Township in 2014. The southern terminus of the trail will be the old Republic bank building, which Johnson hopes to renovate with a historical grant from the DNR to add handicap accessibility and restrooms that can snowmobilers and others can access from outside the building.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net