Michigan Land Use Institute

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Land Stewardship

Jordan worth protecting

December 1, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Northeast of Traverse City, in the heart of forested Antrim County, the Jordan River swirls through a valley of pine-cloaked ridges and fresh water marshes as close to their natural state as any in Michigan. In 1975, when state government was more sympathetic to the public’s right to move freely in unbroken woods, a far sighted management plan was established for the region. It barred industrial development, and sought to ensure that the wild, 22,000-acres of state land in the Jordan Valley would forever be a place of solitude.

Now, two decades later, the priorities of Michigan’s land stewards have been turned upside down. A radical agenda based on private property rights has taken hold in Lansing. Under the guise of standing up for aggrieved land owners, state laws to protect natural rivers, sand dunes, forests, wetlands, and even public safety are under sharp attack by the Engler Administration and the Legislature. The prime beneficiaries have been the oil industry freed to rip apart the North Woods, developers building strip malls, and timber companies clear cutting the Upper Peninsula.

Now this sad legacy of failed stewardship has reached the Jordan Valley. The state’s energy industry has targeted the unmarked Jordan for natural gas development. On December 3, the Department of Environmental Quality will hear arguments and decide whether to break its own rules in order to allow a private mineral owner to drill the valley’s first well on public land.The DEQ decision could set a precedent that brings many more wells, miles of roads, and loud processing stations.

The DEQ is emboldened by the baffling actions of a second state agency, the Department of Natural Resources, which owns the surface land in the Jordan and most of the minerals lying beneath. The DNR has said it wants to block the well. But at this critical first stage of the fight, agency officials will not oppose the DEQ decision, saying they will wait for later rounds to make their case. Environmental groups, unsure about the DNR’s resolve, are intervening to prevent the development.

The argument against opening the Jordan Valley should be an easy one for environmental regulators to make. The businessman who wants to drill in the Jordan purchased his 40 acres of minerals in 1994 as a speculative investment. That was 19 years after the state wrote the management plan for the valley that prohibited energy development.

Moreover, it is illegal in Michigan to drill for natural gas on 40 acres because of environmental harm. In 1995, after a lengthy court fight and months of formal hearings, the DEQ doubled the area for natural gas development to 80 acres. In order to approve the well, the DEQ will have to waive the new law.

How is it that two state agencies charged with protecting the environment and the public’s right to serenity, have been rendered defenseless by a single mineral owner? The answer lies in a series of misguided policy initiatives and court decisions.

Reactionaries have found a ready ear in Lansing for their message that government has no proper role in regulating the uses of private property. They argue that environmental restrictions that limit the uses of property are tantamount to a seizure or "taking" and under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution must be compensated. In effect, they say, government must pay land owners to obey the law.

Nowhere in the nation has the property rights movement attained as much of its misguided agenda as it has in Michigan. The movement’s message has become part of the daily conversation of business, and reverberates at every level of government. Some judges have embraced the ideology. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been paid to despoilers to settle questionable property rights claims.

Late in 1995, for instance, Governor Engler interceded in a case involving drilling for oil in the protected Nordhouse Dunes wilderness near Ludington. He negotiated a deal that paid nearly $100 million to one of the state’s largest oil companies and a group of mineral owners. The taxpayer-funded payment, the second largest settlement of its kind in the United States, was made before the state Supreme Court had an opportunity to thoroughly review all of the critical legal issues in the case. Mr. Engler defended his decision, saying the settlement had saved the state millions more. But critics have pointed out that the principal beneficiary of the settlement was also an important contributor to the state Republican Party.

The expense of the Nordhouse settlement has had the effect of putting Michigan’s environmental and public health protection program into a deep freeze. Agency staffers, demoralized by indifferent leaders and wary of more huge payouts, are simply not enforcing the law. An almost anarchic form of government has evolved in which regulatory agencies are afraid or unwilling to execute their proper duties.

No one needs to be told that government is not perfect. In cases where state officials have blocked a legitimate use of private property, the Constitution has provided safeguards. Judges have decided fair compensation. There is nothing reasonable, though, about the property rights juggernaut in Michigan. State government is raising a white flag in the face of extremism and abandoning its responsibilities to the public trust.

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