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Organizers Working to Keep Jordan Valley Off-Limits to Drilling

Michigan's own "Yosemite Valley" at risk

December 1, 1999 | By Hans Voss
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Admirers of the Jordan Valley, a magnificent natural area northeast of Traverse City, are organizing public and legislative support to ensure the state-owned land remains permanently off-limits to oil and gas developers.

Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, a Bellaire-based grassroots group, is working with state officials, the Institute, and citizens to make the Jordan Valley Michigan's first State Land Reserve. The designation, available under a new law authored by former Rep. Bill Bobier, would formalize an existing state policy that prohibits drilling on the 22,000-acres of state-owned land in the Jordan Valley. It also would require the Department of Natural Resources to acquire all private lands within the area that become available.

The issue over drilling in the Jordan came to the fore in 1995, when energy companies bucked public opinion and state regulations by trying to override a long-established no-drill policy. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of concerned citizens the attempts were defeated -- the struggle tested the resolve of regulators from three state agencies and gave statewide prominence to the issue.

John Hummer, program director for Friends of the Jordan, views the State Land Reserve designation as a way to solidify the state's existing policy and head off further conflict.

"The Jordan Valley is one of the last great places in Michigan," said Mr. Hummer. "In addition to the existing DNR policy, there needs to be legislative action to specifically guard against mineral development there."

How the New Law Works

The State Land Reserve Act was passed last summer to do just that. The law activates a never-before-used section of the state Constitution that enables the Legislature to indefinitely set aside state lands from development. In Michigan, where making money from oil and gas production on state lands has been a political priority, officially protecting land for conservation marks a significant policy shift.

The law also emphasizes acquiring private inholdings. It gives the state "first right of refusal" when any private land within the Reserve boundaries is offered for sale -- the state would be obligated to pay fair market value (see map above for public/private land ownership in the Jordan Valley).

To qualify to become a State Land Reserve, an area must be big and beautiful -- consisting of at least 640 acres of state-owned land and containing a designated natural river, protected wetlands, critical sand dunes, or other significant natural features.

The Jordan Valley is a perfect fit. Hailed as one of Michigan's "crown jewels," perhaps no place in the state has its compelling mix of rugged wildness and awe-inspiring beauty.

Friends of the Jordan will submit a petition proposing a Reserve boundary to the Natural Resources Commission, an advisory panel that oversees the DNR. The NRC will review the application and make a recommendation to the Legislature. It will require a two-thirds vote in favor of the designation in both the House and the Senate to establish the Jordan Valley Land Reserve.

Successful designation of the Jordan Valley could pave the way for other natural areas like the Pigeon River Country State Forest east of Vanderbilt, the Mason Tract on the AuSable River, and the Sand Lakes Quiet Area near Williamsburg.

CONTACTS: John Hummer, Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, 616-533-5063; Mindy Koch, DNR Real Estate Division, 517-373-1246; Hans Voss at the Institute, 616-882-4723.

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