South Fox Island may not sound familiar to many University students, but to those enrolled in Prof. Andrea Smith’s American Culture 498 class, the island in northern Lake Michigan has been the focus of a semester-long campaign to preserve Native American property.

The 14-year old controversy is between land developer David Johnson and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, who wish to protect the island and maintain public ownership. Johnson, who owns two-thirds of the island, was granted permission March 11 by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox to swap parts of his land with the state, which owns the rest of the island.

The significance of the swap, students in the class say, is that by consolidating his land, Johnson will gain greater ability to build over natural resources, including sand dunes and endangered plant life.

“We don’t want a golf course on one of the most beautiful parks in Michigan,” LSA sophomore Jeff Rezmovic said. He, along with LSA junior Tom Church, LSA senior Rachel Goldstein and LSA junior Alex Cadotte, worked throughout the semester on this issue in their Advanced Study of Native Religious Traditions class to lobby the state government and increase awareness about the possible land swap.

Johnson is chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Victor International Corporation, a development company which also developed the Bay Harbor golf course.

“The only reason why something like this could happen – which is pretty offensive – is because people just don’t know about it,” Rezmovic said.

State Rep. Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor) said it was “unfortunate” that the land swap passed.

“I opposed the switch because I think it’s not in the best interest of the people of Michigan,” he said.

Kolb assisted the students by helping them gain access to information and gauging legislators’ opinions.

He also said that Gov. Jennifer Granholm stopped action regarding the land swap during her term as attorney general, “but when she left office, the new attorney general did agree to it.”

In a written statement following the land swap approval, Johnson defended the swap as beneficial to Michigan, as it will protect further destruction of South Fox Island.

“Although this swap does not provide me any additional shoreline or enhance or change my ability to develop the 2,200 acres my company owns on the Island, I have devoted a great amount of personal time and resources to this initiative because I believe it makes sense for Michigan and the Island,” Johnson said in his statement.

He added that the swap “provide(s) the State improved access, increased recreational value, and more than double the contiguous shoreline and contiguous acreage.”

Johnson also started the Victor Institute for Responsible Land Development and Use through Michigan State University, designed to promote ecological sensitivity and environmentally safe development.

Students expressed particular concern about a relationship between Johnson and alleged campaign contributions to Cox and other Michigan Republicans.

“(Johnson) made all these different contributions to the attorney general and Republican Party, so this law was basically approved secretly by his friends who he gave money to,” said Goldstein, whose job included researching Johnson’s background.

Brian Upton, attorney for the Grand Traverse Band, said the land swap “violates the Michigan Environmental Protection Act,” as it demonstrates a threat to natural resources by the current owner. “(Johnson) has a history of running all-terrain vehicles over dunes. … In 1995 he cut into a sand dune to expand his airstrip runway and didn’t have a permit,” Upton said.

While the students’ project evolved into a conservation issue that affects the entire state, it began as a Native American religious issue. Land is essential to practicing Native American religion. The students said the decision is yet another case of the government violating Native American religious values.

The passage of the land swap has left the group disappointed, said Church, but all contend that the process itself still provided for a valuable learning experience.

“It hurts a lot to see (the land swap) go through because you care a lot about it, but it was a great experience to get our foot in the door, working on social and political issues,” Rezmovic said.

Johnson was unavailable for comment at press time.

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