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Michigan Rivers

Act is a national standard

April 7, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1970, during an era when Michigan set national trends in resource protection, the Legislature enacted the Natural River Act to keep the state’s magnificent rivers as close to their natural state as possible. The law enabled the Department of Natural Resources to set restrictions on home building, logging, brush cutting, and other uses of land in an 800-foot wide corridor on designated rivers.

Michigan has gained immeasureably from the Natural River Act. The upper Huron, the Kalamazoo, the Betsie, the Jordan, the Pigeon, and the Au Sable are among the 14 rivers that remain unspoiled by pollution and over development.

Despite this record of accomplishment, the Natural River Act is under sharp attack. Last year, a proposal to designate the Big Manistee and its main tributaries ran into powerful resistance from the state’s property rights movement, which organized opposition among land owners. Among the property rights leaders’ criticism were that the Natural Rivers program shut out local governments, and that citizens were being pushed around by Big Government. It’s "regulation without compensation," said Dave Edel, a property owner along the Manistee River.

The offensive had its desired effect. Thirty one townships along the Big Manistee have passed resolutions opposing designation. And property rights advocates found an influential champion for their cause in state Senator George A. McManus Jr. (R-Traverse City.)

Now Sen. McManus is planning to reintroduce a controversial bill that conservationists say would seriously weaken the Natural River Act. It would do so by giving local governments the power to block the state’s authority to issue protective measures.

Sen. McManus said in an interview that he is sponsoring the legislation because he believes the program is unfair to landowners and bypasses local governments. "We all want the water cleaned. We all want the banks protected. The question is how to do it?" Sen. McManus said.

Supporters of the natural rivers program say Sen. McManus is off the mark. They note that before the controversy erupted on the Big Manistee, the Natural River Act was widely seen as a textbook example of a comprehensive, coordinated, statewide zoning law that works. Its effectiveness has been due to the law’s flexibility, and the fact that local governments and citizens play a decisive and ongoing role.

In designating a river for protection, the DNR notifies every township along its course, and asks citizens and township officials to serve on a local advisory board. Together, the state and local representatives spend two years in monthly meetings studying the river’s watershed. Care is taken by the committee to address the concerns of property owners, and to draw up land use plans that are administered by a local zoning board and specific to each river.

For instance, on the Huron River,which was designated in 1977, homes can be built as close as 100 feet, and brush can be cut as close as 25 feet from the banks. In contrast, on the Jordan River in Antrim County, designated in 1972 as Michigan’s first Natural River, new homes are at least 200 feet from the banks and the protective brush buffer must be at least 100 feet wide.

No other state environmental statute relies as heavily on local involvement. It is for this reason that supporters of the Natural River program say the law works well as its is, and should be left along. In January, the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited approved a resolution that said Sen. McManus’ proposal to give local governments veto power would amount to a "repeal" of the Natural River Act.

The debate over the Natural River Act has become one of the most visible environmental policy struggles. It also has revealed inconsistencies in the positions of Sen. McManus, who opposes any local government or citizen involvement in managing other natural resources, particularly oil and gas development.

When asked why more local government authority was needed in designating a Natural River, but exclusive control for deciding energy issues should remain with the state, Sen. McManus replied. "Oil and gas. That’s a different issue." When asked to be specific about what the difference was, Sen. McManus declined to respond.

This selective logic worries supporters of the Natural Rivers program. "In many cases, our rivers are the lifeblood of the regions in which we live," said five Boardman River landowners in a letter last year supporting the law. "We have seen first hand the value of a well protected river for the long-term interests and property rights of the overall community and society."

Such assessment have not swayed Sen. McManus even though his career has been distinguished by a knack for putting government programs to work to correct abuses of the land. When he was a young farm extension agent, Sen. McManus supported the Federal program to stem soil erosion.. As a first term state lawmaker in the early 1990s, he authored a new tax on farm chemicals that raises $4 million a year for research to prevent pesticides and fertilizer from seeping into water.

Now, he said in an interview, "I’m suspicious of government regulation. The less rules, the less legislation, the better."

This kind of rhetoric is an unfortunate part of the political moment in Lansing. If Sen. McManus’ legislation is approved, say his critics, it would ruin a model land use law that has protected Michigan’s most exceptional rivers, and has commendably served the public interest.


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