Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Rising From The Dead: State River Law Breathes Anew

Rising From The Dead: State River Law Breathes Anew

Natural River proposal first test of Granholm promise

January 16, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Andy Guy
  As new homes and businesses steadily push into northern Michigan, conservation groups are joining with residents to revive the Michigan Natural Rivers Act and apply its safeguards to more of the region's beautiful and wild rivers.

CADILLAC, MI — After years of official indifference about a conservation law that has prevented some of the Midwest’s most beautiful rivers from being ruined by development, anglers and environmentalists are preparing to  formally ask the state Natural Resources Commission, the citizen advisory panel overseeing the state Department of Natural Resources, to support designating Michigan's first new Natural Rivers in 15 years.

Proponents view the public hearing before the NRC on February 6, 2003 as a crucial step toward gaining permanent protection for the Pine and Upper Manistee Rivers, two wild and wooded streams flowing through northern Michigan. It comes more than a year after a coalition of environmental and conservation organizations formed an alliance to inform state residents about the value of protecting the state’s rivers, and the need to again deploy the 1970 Michigan Natural River Act. The law currently protects 14 rivers, but no new Natural River has been designated since 1988.
But as NRC commissioners consider the details of a land use plan to protect the quality, scenic beauty, and unique natural habitats of the Pine and Upper Manistee, the hearing has suddenly taken on new urgency. The region’s property rights leaders are mounting a counter campaign to block safeguards for the two streams. A prominent Republican lawmaker from Gaylord, State Representative Ken Bradstreet, has vowed to help them by proposing legislation to modify the state Natural River Act.

The effort to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee also is a significant test for Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, who during her successful 2002 gubernatorial campaign promised to revive and expand the Natural Rivers program as part of her comprehensive plan to secure Great Lakes water. Designating the two streams as new Natural Rivers could be the first skirmish Ms. Granholm has with conservative militants who oppose any government action to protect natural resources and with members of the NRC, all of whom were appointed by former Republican Governor John Engler.

“As Governor, I will use our scientists and citizens to protect the lake and stream habitats that are of such enormous value to Michigan,” Ms. Granholm said during the campaign. “I will seek expanded state grant funding for volunteer habitat programs. And I will ask our scientific experts to recommend new measures to protect lakes and streams. Specifically, I will ask the Department of Natural Resources to recommend new rivers and streams worthy of protection under our nationally-recognized Natural Rivers Act.”

Property Rights Militants Campaign Hard
The developing dispute over protecting the Pine and Upper Manistee recalls a decade old clash that began when both streams were proposed for consideration as state Natural Rivers. Now, as then, property rights conservatives assert that the plan for the two rivers unduly cedes local control of land use decisions to state leaders and excessively restricts construction of new homes and businesses.
Mark Miltner and two other northern Michigan residents, Brian Warner and Jeff Kea, say the current Natural Rivers plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee seizes private property rights, erodes individual freedoms, and tramples the powers of local government. Mr. Miltner and his colleagues are campaigning to build local resistance to the plan and lobbying state leaders, including Rep. Bradstreet.

“Natural Rivers is a good law,” said Mr. Miltner, a resident of Luther. “However, in crafting the proposed new zoning, complicitous resource managers allowed [cabin owners and members of Trout Unlimited] to impose their agenda of excluding others from the river.”

Environmental experts disagree and counter that the Natural River Act conserves the wild essence of the state’s most beautiful rivers with regulations that are scientifically based and fair to landowners and communities. Proponents of the law point to evidence gathered in the 1990s that shows people who live along the Boardman, Betsie, and other designated Natural Rivers overwhelmingly support the restrictions on development because it ensures the quality of the river and raises property values.

“Haphazard development is the number one threat to the Pine and Upper Manistee,” said Mark Tonello, a fish biologist in the DNR's Cadillac field office. “The current Natural Rivers plan, which attempts to manage development through the river corridors, is a real opportunity to mitigate that threat. It’s an important form of zoning designed to minimize human impacts at the water’s edge and protect the rivers for future enjoyment.”

Conservationists Make Case: Law Works And Is Fair
Enacted in 1970, the Natural Rivers Act encourages the state Department of Natural Resources to cooperate with local governments and citizens to set restrictions on housing construction, brush cutting, and other riverbank activities.

The proposed management plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee would require new buildings — existing structures are grandfathered — to be setback at least 150 feet from the water’s edge, or 50 feet from the crest of a bluff. On tributaries, the setback is 100 feet. The plan also sets standards for septic systems, wetland and floodplain protection, dock size, and the maintenance of shoreline trees and plants.

“Vegetative buffers are extremely important,” said Mr. Tonello. “Trees on the stream bank keep the river shaded, the water running cold; and the roots slow erosion.”

Paddlers, anglers, and campers generally regard the Pine and Manistee Rivers as two of Michigan’s special places. With pristine stretches through Manistee National Forest, the Pine is a designated Blue Ribbon trout stream. Its clean, cold current is home to a unique, self-sustaining population of rainbow trout. The Manistee, also a designated trout stream, supports some 80 species of fish, including salmon and walleye. The two rivers join south of Cadillac and ultimately replenish Lake Michigan.

But the rivers and their tributaries also flow through some of northwest Michigan’s more rapidly urbanizing landscapes. As new homes and businesses steadily push into the region, a growing group of local citizens fear the development pressure threatens to damage the Pine and Manistee and kill fish and wildlife with erosion, clear cutting, and pollution.

“The Pine River is a one-of-a-kind resource that belongs to all Michigan residents,” said Pat Kochanny, president of the Pine River Watershed Coalition. “But with the changes occurring around here we need rules that balance the growth of our community with the protection of our freshwater resources. That way we can avoid spending large sums of money in the future to correct mistakes we can prevent now.”

Mr. Kochanny, who also serves as president of the Pine River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, suggests the struggle to maintain stream quality already is an expensive priority. “Trout Unlimited alone has invested approximately $200,000 in slowing erosion over the past 18 years,” he said.

Moreover, federal funding to help stabilize the banks of the Pine approached $300,000 in 1998, according to the Conservation Resource Alliance, a nonprofit group in Traverse City that works to maintain the natural landscape of northwest Michigan. Similarly expensive projects to slow erosion and improve water quality have taken place on the Manistee.
What will Granholm Do?
Whether Governor Granholm or the Natural Resources Commission will act swiftly to establish permanent protections for the Pine and Upper Manistee is unclear. Mr. Miltner and his associates are working hard to persuade state officials to oppose the Natural Rivers program.

“We’re still reeling from the economic and quality of life damage this group has visited upon us through selective and excessive regulation of public lands,” Mr. Miltner said of the proponents for Natural River protections. “The last thing our community needs is for these exclusionists to rewrite our zoning and have the state usurp our authority.”

Natural River proponents reply that the program actually enhances local control. The plan, they say, was developed through a series of public meetings that spanned several years and involved local residents, civic leaders, and resource experts. If adopted, counties and townships can decide whether to blend the development standards into their existing zoning or create a review board of residents.
Darrell Kelley, chairman of the Wexford County Board of Commissioners, agrees that improved stewardship of the region’s water resources is a top civic priority. Board members recently received a copy of the Natural Rivers management plan for the Pine and Mr. Kelley anticipates a lively debate about the program during a local commission meeting that could occur as early as February.

“Protection of our water resources is an important issue for Wexford County because we are blessed with the Pine River, the Manistee River, and numerous beautiful lakes,” he said. “We are genuinely interested in learning more about the pros and cons of the Natural Rivers Program.”

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

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org