Lansing Transfers Public Assets to Private Interests
A proposed public lands giveaway
August 1, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
and Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
The public — as owners of state land — has long made its natural resources available to private interests for productive uses. But for just as long, citizens have had to keep a strict watch for land grabbers among those private interests.
From events in the Michigan Legislature last spring, it appears that citizen oversight of public lands has rarely been more needed. During the three months between April and the end of June, the Engler Administration and the Legislature teamed up on a program to both transfer and keep public resources in the hands of a select group of development interests:
• Last April, K.L. Cool, director of the Department of Natural Resources, agreed to sell 1,850 acres of public forest near Grayling — nearly three square miles — to make room for new businesses. The sale was the sixth in a series of unprecedented state land auctions since 1998 in which developers purchased large parcels of public forest conveniently located along the I-75 corridor north from Roscommon. Proponents argued that the sales would help communities “manage growth.” However this new state policy of selling off land rather than trading it for land elsewhere promises to become a powerful government tool to promote sprawl.
• Last May, the state House Committee on Natural Resources heard remarkable testimony from Charles Moskowitz, an engineer and oil company executive in Mt. Pleasant. He told lawmakers that Michigan is losing millions of dollars annually in royalty income from natural gas production, much of it from publicly-owned energy reserves. The reason is that companies are under reporting the amount of natural gas they are producing by as much as 50%, he says. State officials and oil industry executives denied the assertions, but Mr. Moskowitz cited natural gas production records from several state agencies, including the Michigan Public Service Commission, to make his case.
• Last June, the Legislature bowed to pressure from Sen. McManus and lobbyists in the forest products industry and required the DNR to mark and put up for sale a record 69,000 acres of timber from state lands. The vote came even as the DNR is having trouble meeting earlier logging quotas that the Legislature began setting in 1997. In too many cases, as a result, valuable stands of ecologically valuable second growth timber are falling to the saw. In Manistee County, for example, foresters this spring marked for harvesting hundreds of acres of mature hardwoods that served as one of the state’s best nesting sites for the threatened red-shouldered hawk. DNR officials relented only after residents and Pleasanton Township officials intervened.
What makes the grab for public resources especially troubling is that polls in Michigan and nationwide consistently find that citizens overwhelmingly support more careful stewardship of natural resources, and more, not less, investment in open space. Yet during the last decade, the Engler Administration and many lawmakers have expressed a contempt for stewardship, and a disdain for the inherent value of wild things and scenic places.
CONTACTS: Anne Woiwode, Sierra Club, 517-484-2372; Sen. George McManus, 517-373-1725; John Truscott, Governor’s Press Secretary, 517-373-3400.