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Wednesday, April 3,2013

The pendulum has swung

How the Republican Party is pillaging Michigan's natural resources

by Walt Sorg
(Editor’s note: The writer was recently named to the board of the Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council as a general public member.)

Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice

If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you. 

It is the official motto of a state now advertising itself as a “19-million-acre playground that’s Pure Michigan.”

Environmental and recreation organizations are leading a growing chorus of those worried that the playground is endangered by a Legislature and governor more concerned with short-term economic advantage than with long-term conservation of resources.

“Tragic and scary.” 

That’s how Haslett’s Anne Woiwode, executive director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, described a legislative drive to scale back the conservation mission of the Department of Natural Resources. 

“They are saying Pure Michigan is only Pure Michigan when it’s convenient,” said Hugh McDiarmid, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

At issue are a host of executive actions and legislative bills over the last two years that take direct aim at Michigan’s century-long legacy of conservation and scientific management of public lands. They are issues that don’t often create headlines because, unlike years gone by, environmental issues tend to be less visible.

In the 1970s, McDiarmid noted, “you had laws such as the Clear Air and Clean Water acts because the threat was in our face: belching smokestacks, rivers catching fire, water supplies that caused cancer.”

“There was momentum back then. It was the beginning of Earth Day,” he said. “The effects (of environmental neglect) were visible, immediate and alarming. Now, it’s harder to see the damage that is being done.”

Two legislative efforts are at the top of the environmental threat list: changing the core mission of the Department of Natural Resources and diverting money from the state’s 37-year-old Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Legislation sponsored by U.P. Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, would effectively take the state’s Department of Natural Resources out of the business of protecting natural habitats by outlawing the DNR’s nascent biodiversity program. The DNR program, which hasn’t yet been implemented, would designate portions of state land for special protections to maintain endangered species, both plant and animal. 

The concept is anathema to some in the timber business who see it as artificially limiting access to state forests by private logging companies. Before his election to the Legislature, Casperson worked for his family’s U.P. log-hauling company.

The bill would also delete the protection of biological diversity from the DNR’s duties regarding forest management; require the department to balance its forest management activities with economic values; eliminate the requirement that the DNR manage forests in a way that promotes restoration; and delete from state law an earlier legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.

The bill passed the Senate in early March on a party-line vote, 26-11. It’s now in the House Natural Resources Committee.

“It is essentially a bill denying science, and a bill prohibiting scientific management of our forests,” McDiarmid said.

Casperson countered in a Detroit Free Press op-ed column that his bill would merely exercise legislative oversight “to ensure that real conservation is achieved while allowing use of the resources for recreation, tourism and economic activity.”

In his view, the DNR and environmental groups are the enemy.

“They want department bureaucrats to unilaterally develop policies that will result in public land being managed to prohibit human activity. This extreme philosophy promotes the misconception that humans, true conservation and protective measures can’t exist together.”

McDiarmid sees the potential for the opposite impact if Casperson’s bill became law. Even the holy grail of sportsmen — deer hunting — could be adversely impacted.

“If the DNR was determined to manage a parcel of land specifically to encourage hunting opportunities for white-tailed deer, this legislation might open the door to a challenge. If you are going to make it illegal to manage land to protect an endangered species, why is that any different from managing it to encourage white-tailed deer for hunting opportunities?”

A companion bill introduced in the state House last year positions the debate over biodiversity in a larger context: a United Nations-led conspiracy to attack private property rights.

Really.

State Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-Kewadin, introduced legislation last session that would prohibit, in his words, “any Michigan governmental entity from adopting, or implementing policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to, the United Nations’ ‘Agenda 21’ or any other international laws that would infringe or restrict, private property rights without due process. The legislation also prohibits certain transactions with certain entities that assist in implementing Agenda 21,” according to MacMaster’s press release announcing the bill. So far, it hasn’t been reintroduced.

Agenda 21 is a 1992 U.N. publication that focuses on the need to balance environmental and economic concerns in third-world countries. It is a non-binding, voluntary action plan which, according to the ICLEI — a global environmental advocacy group representing local governments — “does not advocate for abolishing private property or have any bearing on U.S. local and state land-use decisions. In other words, it isn’t being forced on anybody, anywhere, by any organization.”

The United States is a signatory to Agenda 21, which has become a rallying point for conservative Republicans. The 2012 Republican Party platform denounced it as “erosive of American sovereignty.” The U.N. approved it in the last year of the George H.W. Bush administration.

Woiwode called the legislation a “response to paranoia,” noting that the DNR’s biodiversity program does not deal with private land, but only poses potential restrictions on the exploitation of public lands.

Says Woiwode: “This (biodiversity management ban) is about confiscating publicly owned resources for the benefit of extractive industries and ensuring that there would be an emphasis on maximizing the timber industry’s profit from our public resources, maximizing the mining industry’s profit from our public resources. That is what I think just stuns people.”

Trust Fund diversions

The second alarm bell for environmentalists are efforts led by Casperson and MacMaster — and supported by House Speaker Jase Bolger — to divert earnings of the 37-year-old Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund for maintenance projects, specifically harbor, road and park maintenance.

Created by the Legislature in 1976, the trust fund takes a portion of royalties from mining and forestry operations for the public purchase and development of recreation areas and facilities. It has been used to buy forestland, build harbors and boat ramps, and also develop urban recreation opportunities.

It quickly built up reserves in the hundreds-of-millions of dollars, a pot of money that proved too tempting for lawmakers and governors. Twice, in the late 1970s and again in the 1980s, lawmakers dipped into the trust fund, diverting money to economic development. That prompted two constitutional amendments protecting the fund from future raids. Both measures creating the “conservation lock box” won by two-to-one margins.

The first proposal, in 1984, “was wildly popular and passed in 81 of 83 counties,” noted John Greenslit, back then the first executive director of the Michigan Recreation and Parks Association and now Eaton County parks director.

Since its creation, the trust fund has purchased and preserved for future generations 135,000 acres of ecologically significant land and has funded 1,600 public recreation projects at a cost of $935 million.

“The original mission is still pertinent 37 years later, to use mineral extraction royalties to be reinvested in natural resources,” Greenslit said.

But Republican lawmakers want to change that mission to fund maintenance programs. A Senate bill introduced in February by Casperson would allow trust fund money to be used to dredge Great Lakes harbors. House Republicans are pushing for using the funds for other types of maintenance, including road repairs. The bill is in the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee.

The trust fund reached its constitutional cap of $500 million in 2010. Any mineral revenues coming into the state now go into the Park Endowment Fund, which was established to provide a stable source of money for operating, maintaining and improving state parks.

Operating only on interest earnings, at today’s extremely low interest rates only about one in four projects is approved. 

“The demand far exceeds the money available, and any diversion will just make things worse,” Greenslit said.

The fund’s mission, he said, is “acquisition and development only. Grant recipients must agree, as a condition of a grant, to pay for any needed maintenance in perpetuity.”

In its early years, trust fund money was used primarily in rural areas for the purchase of hunting habitat and development of water-related recreation facilities such as beaches, fishing habitat and boat ramps. Now more of the funds are directed to urban areas.

“There was a realization that a majority of the people in the state live in the southern part of the state,” DNR Grant Management Director Steve DeBrabander told the Detroit Free Press. “So there’s been an emphasis on urban projects.”

Last year’s projects grants signed into law last week by the governor include improvements along the Looking Glass River in DeWitt Township ($142,000); Patriarche Park playground reconstruction in East Lansing ($300,000); and walking trail improvements in Lansing’s Francis Park ($300,000) and Okemos’ Wonch Park ($45,000). (Editor’s note: The writer is a board member of East Lansing Rotary Club, which participated in the Patriarche Park grant application.)

Disappointment with the governor

Gov. Rick Snyder’s attitude toward the diversion — and the change in the DNR’s mission — will be critical.

Inquiries to the Governor’s Office on both issues were referred to the Department of Natural Resources. DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the department opposes diverting money from the Natural Resources Trust Fund based on an attorney general’s opinion that funding maintenance through the Trust Fund was unconstitutional.

Golder said the department has taken no position on passage of Casperson’s biodiversity bill, and took issue with concerns of environmentalists that the legislation cripples the DNR’s mission.

“We don’t believe the bill as it stands would prohibit managing state lands for biodiversity,” Golder said. “Instead, it would prohibit designating particular areas as biodiversity preserves through administrative rule or order. We think we can continue to accomplish the state’s biodiversity goals within the strictures of this legislation, even though some tools for that task would be limited.”

To date, environmentalists have been disappointed by Snyder’s performance. They say they were hopeful when he took office. Two of Snyder’s top advisers brought with them a long history of environmental and conservation activism.

Snyder’s senior policy adviser, William Rustem, was Gov. William Milliken’s point man on environmental issues in the 1970s, and coordinated passage of the 1984 ballot proposal enshrining the Natural Resources Trust Fund in the state Constitution. Dennis Muchmore, chief of staff of the Governor’s Office, is former executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs. His predecessor and longtime friend at MUCC, the late Tom Washington, was part of the environmental coalition that pushed through the initial Trust Fund legislation in 1976.

Despite the prominence of Muchmore and Rustem in the administration, Woiwode sees Snyder’s DNR as “more interested in getting permits out than in enforcement of the (environmental protection) laws,” and pointed out that the first two bills signed by the governor weakened clean air and water protection laws relating to agricultural operations.

McDiarmid sees a glass half full, calling Snyder’s environmental record “mixed.” He pointed to the Snyder’s strong advocacy of public transportation through creation of a Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Authority and improved Amtrak and rail service through the state as positives.

‘We’ve lost track of our heritage’

Michigan’s conservation ethic dates back more than a century. It grew out of the aftermath of the exploits of 19th century lumber barons, who clear-cut tens of thousands of acres of northern Michigan timber.

“We created the state forest system with the goal of taking over lands that were tax reverted because they had been so badly destroyed in the logging era,” Woiwode said. “Three-quarters of our state lands came into public hands because they were tax reverted after timber companies clear-cut them and left.”

The conservation movement gained momentum during the Great Depression when FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps planted hundreds of thousands of trees throughout northern Michigan and built much of the state’s campground system. 

From its beginning, the movement has been marked by alliances between business leaders and environmentalists beginning with Henry Ford’s championing of scientific resource management of U.P. timber. It reached its zenith during the 14-year administration of Milliken, a Republican governor who worked with a bipartisan legislative coalition that enacted some of the nation’s strongest conservation and environmental laws — including the bottle bill, clean water and clean air acts, and the Natural Resources Trust Fund. Milliken’s singular role in promoting urban conservation is recognized in the largest project of the Trust Fund: Development of the William Milliken Riverfront Park in downtown Detroit.

The tension between short-term economic exploitation of natural resources and conservation is a never-ending debate over balance. In Woiwode’s view, the pendulum has swung dangerously.

“We’ve lost track of our heritage,” she said. 

“We deliberately chose a strong conservation ethic — an ethic of restoring the land — so it was of value to everybody: hunter, hiker or logger. The lumber industry came back because of that history. They have lost track of that history. We should be protecting these resources, not just pillaging them today.”

McDiarmid concurred that economic opportunities are “a pretty big driving force,” but he maintains “it is a false choice between protecting the environment or having good jobs in mining or oil and gas industries. We can do both.”

“The pendulum,” McDiarmid agreed, “has swung. It’s a cyclical thing. When people realize that it’s not a good thing to tear down these longstanding protections, they’ll start paying attention and things will change.”

Greenslit says concerns that conservation chokes economic growth are vastly overstated. “It seems to be a political strategy to let you think the world is coming to an end. I don’t think the DNR is trying to buy up the whole state (through the Natural Resources Trust Fund). It’s a great natural resource we have to protect. The lost revenue is miniscule, but the story is very popular in the coffee shop and the bar,” he said.

“It is a political strategy that you run against Lansing, you run against departments like DNR. I don’t that is helpful in solving problems.”

With the anti-government, pro-growth-at-any-cost mindset of many in the Republican-dominant Legislature, the battle over preserving the “Pleasant Peninsula,” the “19-million-acre playground” could be the roughest battle lovers of Pure Michigan have fought in a century.

Questions, comments, concerns?

     To weigh in on SB214, which would divert money out of the Natural Resources Trust Fund for other purposes, contact the Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes clerk at (517) 373-5323 or lmichalak@senate.michigan.gov; or committee Chairman Sen. Tom Casperson at (517) 373-3932 or by mailing to P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, Mich. 48909.

     To weigh in on SB78, a proposal that would change the DNR’s biodiversity program and the way it manages forests, contact the House Natural Resources Committee clerk at (517) 373-8474 or joybrewer@house.mi.gov; or committee Chairwoman Rep. Andrea LaFontaine at (517) 373-8931, AndreaLaFontaine@house.mi.gov or by mail to N-796 House Office Building, P.O. Box 30014, Lansing, Mich. 48909

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