So now what for Michigan environmental policy? The reactions of environmentalists and conservationists to Rick Snyder’s triumph range from fear and loathing to tentative hope. A few in the conservation community believe Snyder will be a pleasant surprise.
Either way, a miserable state budget outlook and right to ultra-right Republican legislators will hem Snyder in. His response to those two pressures will probably define his environmental legacy.
Following a campaign notable for its lack of serious discussion of environmental issues, Snyder has the curse and blessing of a clean slate. Reading from his temperate rhetoric, environmentalists express hope. Reading from his intemperate agricultural campaign policy paper — which smells like Farm Bureau dogma from the 1950s — they are preparing for a possible showdown.
Clean Water Action’s Cyndi Roper was unhappy with Snyder’s smoke signals during the fall, but she says, “I would love to be wrong, so the hope factor might be the way to go.”
Smoke signals are an appropriate image. Snyder’s campaign also released a document pledging to speed up environmental permitting for business and favoring the authorization of several new coal-fired power plants — the dirtiest electricity generator, a contributor to global warming and a source of toxic mercury and harmful sulfur dioxide. That may simply have been fodder for his Chamber of Commerce constituency.
Roper usefully lists the following as the signals to watch to determine the new governor’s approach:
• Who will Snyder name to run the Department of Natural Resources and Environment? His people swatted down a rumor during the campaign that Engler-era chief Russ Harding might return to rip up the environment. A Harding in sheep's clothing would be an ominous sign. There are a few superior Republican-friendly alternatives: Bill Rustem, president of Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing research firm; state Sen. Patty Birkholz, a Saugatuck Republican; and former state Rep. Bill Bobier, a partner in Earthscape Management Inc., a Lansing lobbying firm.
• Does he recognize the necessary science in pollution permit decision-making and assure a full-fledged citizen role in the process, or turn the DNRE into Permits ‘R Us?
• Does he continue shrinking the DNRE’s budget, or defend what’s left and try to take a few steps toward reasonable funding?
• Does he support vigorous enforcement of environmental laws?
Snyder will have a few opportunities Gov. Jennifer Granholm didn’t have. One is a chance to overhaul and improve the state park system. An oil and gas leasing boom on state lands during the last year has generated millions in new money for the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, which pays for purchases of public lands. That means the Trust Fund will soon reach its constitutional cap, and the excess will spill-over into a fund for state park capital improvements. The parks haven’t had a steady source of new investment since the 1970s.
That means the new governor will have a chance to modernize the park system — not just with new toilets, which is what recent funding infusions have paid for, but with parks that meet today’s needs. The parks fall back on a 1950s premise that the parks were for weekend visits by Michiganians seeking an affordable getaway with their RVs and barbecue grills.
Today’s park users tend to be active, seeking hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and other pursuits. Rather than RVs, they tend to pitch tents. Rustic cabins in state parks are hugely popular.
But fun in green spaces isn’t enough for a state whose largest cities are withering. Some of the new parks money can support urban recreation and even more state parks like the named after former Gov. and First Lady William and Helen Milliken on the Detroit riverfront. Lansing’s Riverfront Trail could be extended west and east and become part of the state trails system.
The other prime opportunity is a problem as well. Promoting wind energy as a manufacturing and power-generating policy means running up against fierce local opposition to both offshore and onshore turbines. Many of these communities are in traditionally Republican areas. The new administration can’t afford to run roughshod over them. Besides, when it comes to placating their constituents, even extreme Republican legislators become environmentalists in fighting such local “threats.”
Typical of longtime Lansing environmental politics observers, one spoke on background said that when it comes to these issues, “He gets it. He understands that water quality is part of his quality of life agenda, he’s aware of the connection.”
Rick Snyder may prove to be a nightmare for the environment if he rolls back protections, promotes manure-gushing factory farms, and deepens Michigan’s soot-speckled energy policy. But if he acts like the guy who served on the Nature Conservancy board for several years, he’ll leave Michigan’s natural resources better off than when he inherited them.
(Dave Dempsey, environmental adviser to former Gov. James Blanchard, is the author of several books, most recently "Superior Shores: A Novel of Conservation.")