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Breaking Logjam on Natural Rivers

State schedules hearings for Pine, Manistee protection

February 14, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Andy Guy
  The Pine River will retain its wild character if public hearings lead to permanent safeguards under the Michigan Natural Rivers Act.

LANSING, MI — After almost two years of sharp prodding from conservation groups, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources confirmed on Tuesday that it would sponsor public hearings in May on a citizen-based plan to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers.

DNR Director K.L. Cool on February 12 advised his staff to begin scheduling the state-sponsored meetings. By law, the agency is required to hold one meeting in each of the nine counties in the Pine-Manistee watershed. Natural Rivers Program Manager Steve Sutton, who announced the May meetings but could not yet provide specific dates or locations, said that the DNR would also hold hearings in metropolitan areas such as Grand Rapids, Lansing, and southeast Michigan.
“The Pine and Manistee are one-of-a kind public trust resources,” Mr. Sutton said. “It’s imperative that the state’s residents be given an opportunity to express their opinion of this important plan.”

The announcement came five days after anglers, property owners, and elected leaders who live in the Pine-Manistee watershed asked the Natural Resources Commission to both formally support Natural Rivers designations for those waterways and urge the DNR, which it supervises, to schedule the hearings that the designation process requires. The announcement also came days after Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson, who represents the region crossed by  the Pine and Manistee rivers, said he would not support new safeguards.
Approval of the specific plan for the Pine and Manistee, which area conservationists, ecologists, state scientists, and local leaders have worked on for six years, would help local governments protect them from the steady march of new development. Both of these Blue Ribbon trout streams flow across the northern Lower Peninsula into Lake Michigan.
For the plan’s proponents, the promised public hearings present a long-awaited opportunity to highlight the risks confronting the Pine-Manistee river system and tout the lasting benefits of Natural Rivers protection. They also could set the stage for a statewide revival of the Michigan Natural Rivers Act, which has not been applied to protect a new river since 1988.

Property vs. Clean Water
But for property rights activists such as Jeff Kea, who owns property along the Manistee River and opposes its designation as a Natural River, the hearings offer a final chance to sink the safeguards proposed for the two streams.
“The hearings are merely the next-to-last phase in the process of designation,” said Mr. Kea in an interview, noting that such meetings are required under state law. “Although it is probably the most likely part of the process to be described as democratic, I do not view it as such. If the hearings transpire in Spring 2003, we will be sure to attend and have our voices heard.”

Mr. Kea and other Natural River opponents assert that the citizen-based, draft management plan for the Pine-Upper Manistee river system threatens to excessively limit individuals’ freedom to construct new homes, businesses, and shoreline structures such as docks and gazebos. They also contend that implementation of Natural Rivers development standards would improperly shift the powers of local governments to the state DNR.

“We support sound environmental protection, including watershed management,” said Mr. Kea, who attended the February 6th NRC meeting but did not publicly express his disagreements with the draft plan. “However, we believe that township governments and local elected officials should have the final decision whether or not watersheds in their jurisdiction should be regulated by additional zoning rules. Local governments are best able to regulate land uses by balancing the need for resource protection with managed development and private property rights.”

Approximately eight citizens spoke in favor of protecting the Pine and Manistee. Supporters stressed that the plan is, in fact, locally based and would enable state and local authorities to maintain water quality and natural habitats by facilitating coordinated community planning and zoning. State records show that 60 percent of the 1,698 miles of Michigan waterways already designated as parts of 14 different Natural Rivers systems are actively managed by local zoning ordinances.

At the NRC meeting, proponents also stressed that their plan to curb haphazard development around the two rivers is essential if the state is to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect an invaluable fresh water resources for future generations.

A Remedy For Local Inaction
“There appears to be broad support for advancing Smart Growth here in Michigan,” Denny Douglas, a member of the Mackinaw Trail Fly Fishers, told the NRC. “The Natural Rivers program is a proven method to guide new development in a way that ensures these rivers remain clean and healthy.”

“Can’t townships create the same zoning locally?” asked NRC member Frank Wheatlake.

“Townships say, ‘We can do it,’” Mr. Douglas replied. “But they don’t. That’s the problem.”

Another NRC member, Bob Garner, agreed with Mr. Douglas and provided a recent example from within the Manistee River watershed, a natural basin that encompasses nine counties and 29 townships.

“Missaukee County recently voted in favor of a resolution to oppose Natural Rivers designation,” Mr. Garner said. “[The county commissioners] said that they could do a better job managing the resource locally. But Missaukee County has no planning and no zoning. They don’t even have authority to plan or zone. That’s a hell of a way to run a river.”

The NRC has not taken action on the February 6 request Mr. Douglas and others made for formal support of Natural Rivers designation for the two rivers.
Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes issues and co-author of “Liquid Gold Rush,” a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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