The Attack on Northern Michigan Public Land

Tags: conservation, land cap bill, Natural Resources Trust Fund, northern michigan

Northern Michigan Public Land

The Michigan legislature has mercifully adjourned for its summer break, though I’m not sure if there’s much more damage left to inflict. As someone who grew up in northern Michigan, this was a tough week to analyze and write about conservation legislation for a living.

Northern Michigan was hit hard by the legislature’s actions this week and, sadly, some of the legislators representing northern districts were the very ones who voted for the legislation. In what may have been the single worst week for anti-conservation legislation coming out of Lansing, the legislature passed bills which capped the amount of public recreation land in northern Michigan, stripped dedicated funding for future public land acquisitions in northern Michigan, and opened the door for the spread of invasive vegetation.

THE LAND CAP BILL

The Land Cap Bill, SB 248, has a saga all its own. Sponsored by Sen. Thomas Casperson (R - Escanaba) and passed last year by the Senate, the House took it up this Spring. The original bill put a statewide cap on public land acquisition, restricting the amount of public recreation land available. What became abundantly clear during a January town hall meeting in Alpena was that the bill would primarily benefit only those in a position to purchase large tracts of Upper Peninsula land that would be forced into privatization by the bill. (More direct bills, like HB 4577 & 4579 and SB 1021 & 1022, are addressing the issue of payments in lieu of taxes, which proponents of the Land Cap Bill used as an excuse for its passage). 

Conservation groups including Michigan LCV, whose members sent thousands of messages to the committee, pushed for amendments to the bill which would lessen its negative impacts. One such amendment was passed by the House Committee on Natural Resources, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation to exempt the entire Lower Peninsula from the cap, which was offered by Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R - Traverse City).

The House of Representatives rejected that compromise on Tuesday, though, instead adopting one which specifically included the entire northern Lower Peninsula in the land cap. While language in the bill suggests that the legislature should remove the cap once they approve of a DNR land acquisition plan, there is absolutely nothing in the bill which guarantees this will ever happen.

On Wednesday, hundreds of Michigan LCV members sent messages to their representatives urging them to oppose the Land Cap Bill. However, in one of the closest votes this session, the House passed the bill 58-52 - a loss of just four votes! Disappointingly, four representatives from the northern Lower Peninsula could have made the difference and protected their own districts from the cap. Instead, Reps. Ray Franz (R - Onekama), Greg MacMaster (R - Kewadin), Frank Foster (R - Petoskey) and Philip Potvin (R - Cadillac) all voted to put their own districts under the Land Cap, as did Reps. Matt Huuki (R - Atlantic Mine) and Ed McBroom (R - Vulcan).

Several representatives should be commended for voting to protect public land access in their districts: Reps. Wayne Schmidt (R - Traverse City), Peter Pettalia (R - Alpena), Bruce Rendon (R - Lake City) and Stephen Lindberg (D - Marquette) all opposed the Land Cap Bill, and Reps. Jon Bumstead (R - Newago) and Holly Hughes (R - Montague) crossed party lines to oppose the bill. If you live in one of these representatives’ districts, please thank them for standing up for conservation.

THE NATURAL RESOURCES TRUST FUND

When the annual appropriations bill to allocate funds for Natural Resources Trust Fund projects was introduced in February, we heard rumors that politicians would try to remove projects recommended by the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board. The Trust Fund Board was created to take the politics out of the process by which royalties from the sale of oil and gas on state land are used to purchase and improve public recreation land at state and local levels of government.

Michigan LCV members sent hundreds of messages to members of the appropriations committee and they listened, allocating all $39 million to the recommended projects. An amendment was defeated on the House floor to remove four state land acquisition projects and the bill moved to the Senate. The Senate went on Spring Break, and when they returned they passed the bill unanimously. Before they passed the bill, though, they slipped in an amendment removing $4 million for those four state acquisition projects and ignoring the nonpartisan Trust Fund Board’s recommendations.

Last week, the House rejected the Senate’s changes, and this week the bill went into a conference comprised of three representatives and three senators for resolution: Senators Darwin Booher (R - Evert), Roger Kahn (R - Saginaw Twp.) and Morris Hood (D - Detroit), and Reps. Chuck Moss (R - Birmingham), Eileen Kowall (R - White Lake), and Richard LeBlanc (D - Westland). Of those, only Sen. Booher represents a northern Michigan district. Yesterday, the conference decided to approve funding for two eco-regional acquisition projects in the southeast and southwest Lower Peninsula, and deny funding for eco-regional projects in the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.

Eco-regional projects allow the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) the flexibility to purchase high-priority lands when they become available. Often they include inholdings within existing state land areas that become available after the April application deadline for the next year’s Trust Fund review process. WIthout the flexibility to purchase these inholdings, the DNR will not receive funding to purchase the properties until 2014, by which time the properties may already be off the market. This means that no additional public land will be purchased in northern Michigan this year, even if it is high-priority land that would improve outdoor recreation opportunities in the region. Once again, just like in the Land Cap Bill, northern Michigan was specifically targeted for reduced public land access.

The whole state was impacted by the bill, though; after the conference reported its recommendations, the House voted to approve it but the Senate failed to consider it before it adjourned for its summer break, despite reports that the DNR agreed to the compromise only because it didn’t want to delay approval by the legislature. This means that funding for all of the approved local projects, like building pools and parks, will be put on hold at least until the Senate returns briefly in July. This means that almost a hundred projects across the state which could be employing summer workers, drawing tourists, and improving the quality of life for Michiganders, will have to wait, even though the money used for these projects is constitutionally-protected specifically for these kinds of projects!

PHRAGMITES AND BEACH GROOMING

Senate Bill 1052 - also sponsored by Sen. Casperson - was moved out of committee on Tuesday and passed on Thursday to remove state oversight of beach grooming between the ordinary high-water mark and waters edge on shorelines. While this area is not always public land, it is part of the public trust on Great Lakes shorelines. Amendments have improved this bill since its original version, which would have restricted public access to walk Great Lakes shorelines and damaged shoreline wetlands.

However, the bill that was passed still allows for removal of shoreline vegetation without a permit, which has important consequences for aquatic invasive vegetation like phragmites. Phragmites are an aquatic invasive plant that can spread when they’re improperly removed. While removal may seem like the obvious solution, it can actually make the problem worse if done improperly or at the wrong time. Saginaw Bay residents who are pushing this bill cite the spread of phragmites as the reason why the bill is needed; they want to be able to remove them without a permit.

By allowing statewide removal without a permit, though, the bill could subject northern Michigan bays like the Grand Traverse and Little Traverse to the same problems that Saginaw Bay is facing due to well-intentioned but potentially misinformed property owners. The purpose of the permit is not to prevent property owners from maintaining their beaches; it’s just to make sure they do so in a way that doesn’t harm neighboring property or the public trust in Great Lakes shorelines.

A late amendment to the bill requires the newly-created Invasive Species Council to consider recommendations for the removal of phragmites, but without a permitting process it will be difficult to enforce the council's recommendations. 

WHAT’S NEXT

After passing these bills, the legislature adjourned for summer break. The legislators will return to their districts to meet with residents and some will ask for your votes. They’ll have to explain to you how they represented you and why. When you're fishing, hiking, and camping this weekend, think about what public land means to you. Then ask your legislators, when you see them this summer, where they stood when it came to protecting public land access in Michigan. If you live north of Clare, ask your legislators why they restricted your right to enjoy outdoor recreation on public land or thank them for trying to protect it. And when they ask you for your vote in the Fall, ask them how they voted this Spring.

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Drew YoungeDyke is the Policy & Communications Specialist for Michigan LCV