Just a short drive from Marquette, Dead River Falls has long been a popular hiking and camping spot for locals, who come to marvel at a series of cascading falls through a rocky gorge and enjoy the near-pristine wilderness.
Over the years, however, throngs of people have discovered Dead River Falls, trampling all over the rugged landscape, causing erosion and other issues. This place is an ecological disaster. It is terrible to see a beautiful place so destroyed by too much foot traffic,” one visitor lamented on a website (Waterfalls of the Keweenaw Area)
after a visit in September.
The human impact at Dead River Falls has been so intense that Marquette tourism officials this fall removed the destination from a waterfall map for tourists and are pulling back from any kind of promotion.
Travel Marquette, the organization promoting tourism in Marquette County, is taking further steps to protect the region’s natural resources. Working in collaboration with other partners, Travel Marquette has launched Respect Marquette, a promotional campaign aimed at helping visitors and locals alike be respectful of local recreation areas.
“We realized we needed to be proactive working with visitors and locals alike on respecting the area,” said Susan Estler, president and CEO of Travel Marquette. “There were just some areas that were getting too much traffic. We want to remind visitors and locals alike to keep the region’s forests, lakes, and natural spaces as special as when you found them.”
With its rugged, wooded landscape, Marquette is a popular mountain biking destination.
With an influx of travelers, Marquette, like other regions across the U.P. and the lower peninsula, has been combatting a number of conservation issues including trashed natural areas, water pollution, trail erosion, wildlife endangerment, and park overcrowding.
“A lot of rural areas experienced an increase in visitors, people seeking outdoor recreation areas. Many areas received more visitors than they were accustomed to. That impacts the local community and the local infrastructure,” said Brad Barnett, executive director of Visit Keweenaw. “Marquette felt that influx and many others did as well. We’re trying to work with visitors and our community members to make sure the experience is good for everyone.”
While Visit Keweenaw is not part of the coalition, tourism officials there, like others across the state, are keeping on eye how the initiative fares. Many regions experienced a spike in visitors in 2020 and 2021; the Keweenaw Peninsula was among them.
“I think we’re all trying to learn together. Travel Marquette took the lead with their community with a proactive messaging campaign,” Barnett said, adding Visit Keweenaw is also promoting sustainable tourism. “We hope that’s effective.”
More than two dozen organizations from across the county, including the state, community and economic development, trails organizations and conservation groups like the Upper Peninsula Land Conservancy, are working with Travel Marquette as part of a sustainability coalition promoting Respect Marquette.
This coalition, made in partnership with the national organization Leave No Trace, reflects Travel Marquette's strategic plan: to build strong community partnerships that can work to address impacts and issues relating to environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
“Every kind of industry gets touched by tourism. We kind of felt there was a bigger story to tell there,” Estler said, adding the initiative grew from a discussion about the county’s master plan, which included the hospitality industry and the need to expand the base. “We really felt it was something that we needed to take a leadership position and work with everyone. We needed a holistic approach.”
The coalition has adapted the seven principles created by the Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics to reflect what is happening in Marquette. Leave No Trace will help guide the Respect Marquette Coalition and provide other resources.
Marquette’s adapted principals include “Know Before You Go,” reminding outdoor enthusiasts to learn about the areas they plan to visit and prepare appropriately, researching trail use, conditions, terrain, your route and campsite availability. “Many of our trails were not built to handle a high volume of visitors. Avoid the crowds and prevent trail damage by visiting during off times such as early morning, late in the day, or on weekdays.
Another reminds hikers to “Stick to trails and campsites.” “Walk and ride on designated trails to protect trailside plants and respect private property” Others pertain to trash and managing human waste, campfire etiquette, wildlife, and sharing trails and managing pets.
Leave No Trace works with destination management and marketing organizations like Travel Marquette to develop comprehensive stewardship education programs, said Faith Overall, community engagement manager for Leave No Trace. They usually include the development of location-specific Leave No Trace messaging -- designed to address the recreation-related impacts in an area. The messaging is also intended to equip visitors and residents with knowledge and skills to protect the natural world while enjoying their time outside.
Numerous destinations across the country are working with Leave No Trace to create programs similar to Respect Marquette. They include: Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, Door County, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Sonoma County, Calif.
One of Respect Marquette’s coalition partners is the Superior Watershed Partnership, which has been working to protect and preserve the environment of the Upper Peninsula for more than 20 years.
The first Respect Marquette meeting highlighted statistics showing the number of people flocking to recreation areas in the Upper Peninsula, including Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, where visitor counts have more than doubled in recent years. The National Lakeshore has experienced some of the same issues as Dead River Falls and many other local outdoor recreation areas – people wandering off trails, trash and inadequate infrastructure to handle the growing crowds.
Kayaks paddling in the Marquette area.
“This has presented a lot of challenges at Pictured Rocks that the National Park Service is working to address, but more locally here in Marquette, Dead River Falls is an unfortunate example ,” said Tyler Penrod, program manager for the Great Lakes Climate Corps. “It’s a case of people loving a place to death. It’s tough to see many of our favorite local recreation areas change so dramatically in such a short period of time because of the pressure of increased visitation.”
Dead River Falls, which is owned by a timber company that allows public access, has no designated camping spots, no designated fire rings – presenting a fire hazard – and a small parking area, not large enough to accommodate too many vehicles, he said. A steep trail that runs along the river and waterfalls is experiencing erosion, a safety hazard to hikers. Visitors veering from the trail or combing hillsides for firewood are creating erosion issues.
The lack of infrastructure is an issue in other recreation areas which often lack parking areas, trash cans, bathroom facilities, and day-use amenities like fire pits and picnic tables. Each summer members of the Great Lakes Climate Corps work on projects that focus on sustainable tourism, including restoring coastlines, building and maintaining hundreds of miles of trails in the U.P., and creating new campsites.
Penrod believes the Respect Marquette campaign holds promise and can help create a more sustainable atmosphere for the growing tourism industry.
“I think it’s really gotten off to a good start, creating media buzz and informational materials for the public,” he said. “I’m really excited to see where things go and how we can implement projects to help create the infrastructure that promotes sustainable tourism. I think the partnership will be able to better leverage these opportunities to promote sustainable tourism.”