Leave it to Beaver

If you’re a homeowner, having a river or pond run through your property can be pretty cool — it can turn a rather nondescript piece of land into something more interesting and, with proper upkeep and safety, something more fun. Of course, that’s only true if the body of water was something you expected to be there. If, one day, you woke up to find your typically dry backyard more akin to a bayou, well, that’s a problem. So in 1997, when a homeowner in Montcalm County, Michigan, discovered unexpected water on his property, he went investigating. And what he found led to his neighbor named Ryan DeVries.

According to his neighbor at the time, and according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), DeVries had unlawfully diverted a waterway, causing flooding downstream. Specifically, the DEQ believed that DeVries had, for some unknown reason, started to build wooden dams on a stream, and done so without a permit. The DEQ wrote him a letter, excerpted below, which outlined his allegedly unlawful activity:

You have been certified as the legal landowner and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity:

Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond. A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity. A review of the Department’s files show that no permits have been issued.

Therefore, the Department has determined that this activity is in violation of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Michigan Compiled Laws annotated. The Department has been informed that one or both of the dams partially failed during a recent rain event, causing debris dams and flooding at downstream locations. We find that dams of this nature are inherently hazardous and cannot be permitted. The Department therefore orders you to cease and desist all unauthorized activities at this location, and to restore the stream to a free-flow condition by removing all wood and brush forming the dams from the strewn channel.

The maximum penalty for not complying with the demand is found in section 324.30112: a $10,000 per day fine.

But there were two problems with the letter. First, Ryan DeVries wasn’t the owner of the home to which the letter had gone. That was easily solved, though; the owner was a man named Stephen Tvedten (who not that it matters to the story, but specialized in innovations in pest removal), and Tvedlen ended up with the letter without further effort by the DEQ. The second problem was a bigger issue: Tvedten hadn’t built the dams. They were built by beavers.

Tvedten decided to have some fun with the DEQ, and wrote back:

I am the legal owner and a couple of beavers are in the (State unauthorized) process of constructing and maintaining two wood “debris” dams across the outlet stream of my Spring Pond. While I did not pay for, nor authorize, their dam project, I think they would be highly offended you call their skillful use of natural building materials “debris.” I would like to challenge you to attempt to emulate their dam project any dam time and/or any dam place you choose. I believe I can safely state there is no dam way you could ever match their dam skills, their dam resourcefulness, their dam ingenuity, their dam persistence, their dam determination and/or their dam work ethic.

[ . . . ]

My first concern is — aren’t the dam beavers entitled to dam legal representation? The Spring Pond Beavers are financially destitute and are unable to pay for said dam representation — so the State will have to provide them with a dam lawyer. The Department’s dam concern that either one or both of the dams failed during a recent rain event causing dam flooding is proof we should leave the dam Spring Pond Beavers alone rather than harassing them and calling them dam names. If you want the dam stream “restored” to a dam free-flow condition — contact the dam beavers — but if you are going to arrest them (they obviously did not pay any dam attention to your dam letter-being unable to read English) — be sure you read them their dam Miranda rights first.

The full letter is available here and makes a punny use of the word “dam” a dozen or so more times.

The DEQ didn’t find the response so funny. Instead, the agency doubled down on its initial impression of the situation: “The DEQ,” according to Snopes, “later claimed they were fully aware the ‘debris dams’ were beaver dams; the issue, they said, was that the beavers who built them had long since abandoned the dams, but Mr. Tvedten had been continuing to maintain and even build up the dams himself.” Tvedten countered by blaming the neighbor whose complaint started this whole thing — Tvedten alleged that the reason the beavers had left the site was because the neighbor had killed them.

Regardless of what happened to the beavers, it became increasingly clear that Tvedten had probably not been maintaining their dams. And it was also clear that absentee dam-building beavers were unlikely to reply to the DEQ’s letter or apply for a permit, and, for that matter, weren’t likely to be bothered by a threat of a $10,000/day fine. The DEQ dropped the investigation a few weeks later.

Bonus Fact: Beavers are mammals and are in the order Rodentia (as in “rodent”). Despite the fact that they’re attracted to water and can swim pretty well, they’re cousins of rats and mice — and are definitely not fish. But in the 17th century, when Europeans first came to the New World, that little detail hardly mattered. As Atlas Obscura explains, the Bishop of Quebec decided to classify beavers as fish, based on their habitat. As a result, “beaver still serves as a Lenten meat substitute in some areas, particularly St. Louis, Missouri.”

From the Archives: Why it May be Okay to Drop Beavers from Airplanes: The title is accurate; the story is just weird.

Take the Quiz: A pretty hard word ladder which has nothing to do with the above.

Related: “Leave it to Beaver,” the complete TV series, on DVD. Before you click the link, try and guess how many DVDs it encompasses. The answer may surprise you.