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Wednesday, September 8,2010

Is a conservation governor in Michigan's future?

by Dave Dempsey

From an environmentalist’s point of view, the candidates for governor can’t be much better. The state’s League of Conservation Voters endorsed both Republican Rick Snyder and Democrat Virg Bernero.


Snyder’s choice of Rep. Brian Calley of Portland as his running mate for lieutenant governor dismayed environmentalists. Calley’s 17 percent record on 2010 environmental issues didn’t impress them. Bernero’s choice of Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence doesn’t reveal anything about his environmental attitudes.


But who ever voted based on a candidate for lieutenant governor?


Both Snyder and Bernero speak intelligently on environmental issues, and both have a respectable environmental platform. And in the case of Bernero’s Lansing rule, there’s a respectable environmental record. The question is how much that means.


It’s important to figure it out. There’ll be a lot on the plate of the new governor — including the broccoli compartment, where you can find the green issues. These are just a few of the painful questions — challenging the platitudes that candidates like to offer — that someone should put to Snyder and Bernero.


• How do you credibly deter pollution and enforce the laws against those who are undeterred when your natural resources agency is skin and bones after a decade of anorexic budgeting? By spending more money, wisely, but where will it come from?  Do you raise taxes — and on whom? Or do you take money from elsewhere — and from whom?


• How do you make Michigan the center of the Great Lakes not just geographically, but in advocacy? Michigan has surrendered its regional lead on Lakes cleanup and water conservation, and never had it on invasive species. Will the new governor take on the international shipping industry, whose ballast water is the source of the majority of invaders over the last quarter century? Will he do more than just posture on the Asian carp threat?


• How do you keep Pure Michigan from becoming the manure capital of America from the proliferation of monster-size factory farms that pour foul wastes into southern Michigan waters? Agribusiness lobbyists will fight you fiercely. Are you willing to take them on?


The last half-century’s gold standard for conservation governors is William Milliken, the Republican who held the office from 1970 to 1982. Milliken not only signed most of the state’s monumental environmental legislation, but also championed much of it at its inception, and spoke passionately about the need to husband the state’s natural resources.


Democrats Jim Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm were rarely willing to defend the environment when jobs seemed to get in the way and fell well short of Milliken’s accomplishments.


Republican John Engler did a reverse Roosevelt, shaking off the Bull Moose President’s GOP conservation tradition, splitting and neutering the Department of Natural Resources. (Granholm finally stitched the gash by creating the Department of Natural Resources and Environment this year.) To Engler, environmental protection was for Girly-Men.


After 28 years of chief executives ranging from often ineffectual to actively hostile on environmental issues, is Michigan going to do better this time around?


The problem either Snyder or Bernero will face after moving into the governor’s office is the political pressure to revive a terrible economy by selling or allowing exploitation of everything from trees to water. Like a vampire, no one can kill the demagogic politics of jobs v. environment.


There really is no conflict between the economy and the environment — the real conflict is between short-term, temporary gain and long-term prosperity. But politicians don’t get elected in the long term. The new governor will be hungry for re-election four years hence, and won’t necessarily be able to sell hungry business lobbies or the unemployed on the idea that in another decade or two a well-conserved environment will be a job engine.


If Michigan’s economy soon comes out of its coma, however — for whatever reason — the new governor will be able to fend off most get-rich-quick-on-resource exploitation schemes. And he’ll have an opportunity to move ahead on water, air, land and fish and wildlife policies.


It probably is, but it shouldn’t be too much to ask any future Michigan government CEO to do what Milliken did. The state’s economy got seriously sick three times during his run, in 1973, 1975 and 1981-1982.  But in lean times as well as good, he almost always did the right thing by the environment even when it would have been more expedient to do otherwise. The result is a state whose wide-ranging beauty astonishes many first-time visitors, and keeps them coming back.


So, will there be a conservation governor in Michigan’s future beginning Jan. 1, 2011? The answer is a guarded yes.


(Dave Dempsey was environmental adviser to former Gov. James Blanchard and author of several books, most recently “Superior Shores: A Novel of Conservation.”)

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