City, state fail to assess Grand Prix’s environmental impact on Belle Isle

Belle Isle was virtually empty outside of the Grand Prix area because no one is allowed to drive to the island. Photo by Chuck Goodine.
Belle Isle was virtually empty outside of the Grand Prix area because no one was allowed to drive to the island. Photo by Chuck Goodine.

Michael Betzold
Motor City Muckraker

What is the environmental impact of the Grand Prix on Belle Isle?

No one knows – because neither the city of Detroit nor the State of Michigan has ever asked for organizers to assess it.

Michigan DNR chief Ron Olson says his department, which took over the island in February 2014, has never asked for an environmental impact statement. Asked why there is no such assessment, Olson points out that the state inherited a pre-existing contract between the Prix and the City of Detroit that doesn’t require it.

Cars being parked on Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.
Cars being parked on Belle Isle. Photo by Michael Betzold.

In the absence of a formal assessment, anecdotal evidence is all that’s available. One widely circulated photo shows a muddy morass after cars were parked on the island last year. “They [the race organizers] didn’t like that, and we didn’t like that,” says Olson.

So this year shuttle buses are taking race fans across the MacArthur Bridge from various parking areas up and down Jefferson Avenue.

Olson pointed to the transportation plan as evidence that the DNR is responding to impacts of the race on the island.

But a quick bicycle tour of the island this morning revealed hundreds of cars being parked on some grassy areas. Two spots just off the bridge were for car dealerships and supporters of various race teams who had special passes. Asked what the plans were for Sunday, when rain is forecast, one parking lot attendant pointed eastward down the island.

“We won’t be parking here if it rains because they don’t want to mess up this part of the island.”

And true enough, signs designated several other parking areas on grassy areas around the old children’s zoo and near the athletic fields, further away from the race and accompanying media scrutiny. Most were not being used Saturday morning. But one patch of grass near Shelter 11 looked as if it had been chewed up recently by some sort of big truck or bulldozer. It’s not clear whether that damage was Prix-related.

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The forecast is for a good chance of showers and thunderstorms Sunday.

Apart from muddy parking spots, other environmental impacts of the race are undocumented and thus speculative. Grass can be replaced, but the island’s marshes are home to at least one threatened species, the eastern fox snake.

Parking at the Grand Prix near the park's ball fields. Photo by Michael Betzold.
Parking at the Grand Prix near the park’s ball fields. Photo by Michael Betzold.

Are that species and other fauna and flora unaffected by the race? No one knows. But Olson seems sensitive to the issue. A photo of two metal boxes nailed to the trunk of a tree was posted a few days ago on the “Belle Isle-Park or Racetrack?” Facebook page that’s home to critics who have protested the Grand Prix recently. Olson was so aware of the photo that when I mentioned it he immediately accused me of bias and of implying that the DNR had allowed it to happen. He said picnickers have done far worse damage to trees.

Asked whether the DNR would require any environmental assessment of the race, Olson at first mentioned the pre-existing contract with the city. He also said an environmental impact statement could mean many things. Finally, he acknowledged his department might have the authority to ask for something of that kind.

“It’s a possibility,” he said.

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.