Scenic roads, and how one woman helped keep them so

Autumn is the right time for a hike or a drive down country roads - time to enjoy the natural beauty of trees ablaze with fall colors - brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows or palest pink and gold.

The air is soft; the sky hazy overhead. There are cornstalks in open fields and pumpkins on the vine.

But all is not rewarding.

A favorite roadside scene of tangled bittersweet vines with sprinkled clusters of bright orange berries on a split rail fence is now barren. The vines and fence were taken down when the road was paved.

The roadside ditch where velvety-brown cattails nodded has been filled in. A line of oaks on a ridge has been cut down.

It's happening everywhere. More and more roadsides the country over are losing their natural beauty as they are tamed and turned into bare earth or cement.

One nature lover watching this process with growing concern is Bertha Daubendiek of Avoca, Mich. She already had earned a reputation as an activist as head of the Michigan Nature Association, which she founded. She thought something should be done to protect unusually beautiful roadsides, especially when their destruction was often the result of thoughtlessness or carelessness.

She pondered the problem - and the answer came one day when she and a friend were walking on a narrow, secluded road in Presque Isle County near Lake Huron.

It was a beach road on a ridge of sand, affording a breathtaking view of the foaming, churning, blue-green waters of the lake. The black silhouettes of freighters paraded across the horizon, and gulls swooped and screeched overhead.

But Bertha Daubendiek's eyes were not riveted on this vista, however glorious. She walked head down, in the traditional posture of the naturalist searching the roadside for wildflowers.

She was well rewarded: Orange-red Philadelphia lilies nodded in the wind, and maroon pinedrops were sprinkled everywhere. Best of all, she found a ram's-head orchid, one of the plants on the list of endangered flora in the United States. She still delights in that find. It topped her many discoveries as a self-taught expert who has roamed the state, cataloging hundreds of wildflowers of every kind and color, from common violets to rare ladys-slippers.

The sight of that orchid along Evergreen Beach Road that day aroused her crusading spirit. She recalls turning to her friend and saying that ''some day'' that very road could well meet the fate of other beautiful, secluded roads and be widened, destroying all the rare and lovely wildflowers lining its path.

''There ought to be a law . . ,'' she said.

That was in 1969. In 1970, to commemorate the first national celebration of Earth Day, the Natural Beauty Roads Act passed the Michigan Legislature, and Ms. Daubendiek was the moving force behind it.

''I stayed awake nights figuring out how such a law could work,'' she recalls , ''and I passed along my ideas to the lawmakers. Then I campaigned to get a bill introduced and passed. I wrote 450 letters to garden clubs, historical preservation committees, and people I thought would be interested in environmental issues.''

When Public Act 150 was introduced by then-state Sen. Robert Richardson of Saginaw, Ms. Daubendiek kept supporters in touch with its progress via a newsletter. Many wrote letters of support to their legislators, and about a dozen enthusiasts joined her in testifying on the bill's behalf.

''I showed photographs of the kinds of roadsides I thought should be protected from bulldozers and the lumberman's ax,'' she says. ''Several of us met in committee with the lawmakers to word the bill in such a way that it would be acceptable to county road commissioners and conservation officials alike.''

The bill passed unanimously in the state Senate and received only two dissenting votes in the House. It was one of the first natural beauty roads laws in the country.

The law provides that any 25 people in the same township as a road they consider extraordinarily beautiful may petition their county road commission to designate it as a natural beauty road, thereby protecting it from widening or destructive treatment of any kind. If the commission agrees (it need not), then it promises to maintain and administer the road in such a way as to protect its natural features while still providing for safe public transportation.

In the first few test cases, Ms. Daubendiek discovered that a ''yes'' vote from the commissioners was more likely if 51 percent of the property owners in the vicinity of the road signed the petition, though the law doesn't rquire this.

The campaign to get the law passed cost $800 in postage and printing. The Michigan Nature Association picked up the tab.

To date, 63 stretches of road have been designated as natural beauty roads in 19 Michigan counties, protecting 140 miles of roadside wildflowers, trees, vines , shrubs, and streams.

One of the shortest is just three-tenths of a mile long - Wildemere Drive in Kent County. The longest is Norway Truck Trail in Macomb County, which runs 12.5 miles.

Kent County citizens have been the most vigorous, petitioning their commissioners successfully 24 times and acquiring 31.36 miles of protected roadsides.

''One day, when I was driving near Grand Rapids in Kent County, I came across one of the roads,'' Ms. Daubendiek says. ''I spotted the official white and green metal signs at the beginning and end of a two-mile stretch. It was near some public land, and it was lovely. I was so thrilled.''

Traveling in Wisconsin recently, she saw a newspaper notice that the state had a natural beauty roads law, but people weren't using it. That, she thinks, is a shame.

While only one-fifth of Michigan's counties have established natural beauty roads, the number of petitions is increasing. They may be turned down for a number of reasons, Ms. Daubendiek says. In one case, the property owners along the road planned to subdivide their land, which ''automatically meant widening the road,'' she notes. In another case, ''the commissioners simply did not want to give up their control over every inch of their roads.''

Ms. Daubendiek is no stranger to fights on behalf of wildflowers, trees, birds, and wild animals. Her first battle, in 1953, was to save a tern colony that stood in the way of a planned dance pavilion at a public park. The pavilion was placed elsewhere.

She also forced the building of sewage plants to stop the pollution of the St. Clair River before public awareness of such problems, stopped oil drilling in some state public game areas, and stopped the building of 50 artificial lakes and a federal trans-state waterway she felt would have destroyed natural areas along the route.

She's a formidable opponent who runs her hobby like a business on the upper floor of her rural Avoca home, where she retired after many years as a career court reporter in Michigan.

She founded the Michigan Nature Association (MNA) 22 years ago to buy pockets of primeval Michigan wilderness for preservation. To date, with only meager income from dues (membership is $18 a year) and many donations, MNA has bought 3 ,500 acres of beaches, forests, swamps, and fields, establishing 65 nature sanctuaries in 30 counties.

Among other pieces of land, MNA acquired Timberland Swamp in urban Oakland County, when it was threatened with roads and parks; a ghost town in the Upper Peninsula where a field of rare purple coneflowers grow; and Estivant Pines, a white pine forest where it takes five people, arms outstretched, to circle the trunk of one of the majestic kings of Michigan timber.

Bertha Daubendiek knows each sanctuary and every bird, flower, and tree in them. She can maneuver through tangled vines and find rare ferns in outcroppings of rock deep in dark, dank, hidden woods. She knows where to watch, hidden in a weathered barn, as sandhill cranes gather in open fields at dusk. She can find agates scattered in the sand like so many pennies on Lake Superior beaches.

Her love of nature began as a child growing up on an Iowa farm, where she gathered wild crocuses that grew along the nearby railroad tracks. After graduation from college, she came to the big cities of Chicago and Detroit to work. While spending weekends and vacations at a cottage on Lake Huron, she became an avid bird watcher and organized the Mt. Clemens Bird Study Club, the forerunner of MNA.''You can take the woman out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the woman,'' she explains.Her enthusiasm never flags. A few years ago, she was named one of the state's top 10 volunteers. She says she has the best of all possible hobbies for her retirement because ''it's something I get wrapped up in and it's bigger than I am. The days are too short to do all I want to do.''

The growth of natural beauty roads in the state pleases her, though she isn't satisfied and thinks there should be many more, ''if people will just realize they can act to save the beauty on their doorsteps.''

Not all the roads are in remote areas, she points out.''One of my favorites is Wing Lake Road from Maple to Quarton Roads in Bloomfield Township. It's just a stone's throw from a busy expressway, but it's another world - a country lane in a city. A directory of 63 natural beauty roads is available from the: Department of Natural Resources, Stevens T. Mason Building, Box 30028, Lansing, Mich. 48090.

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