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Natural Rivers Program Under Attack

April 19, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1970, during an era when Michigan set national trends in resource protection, the Legislature passed the Natural River Act to keep the state's magnificent rivers as close to their natural state as possible.

The law enables the Department of Natural Resources to set some restrictions on home building, logging, brush cutting, agriculture, industry, and other uses of land in a 400-foot zone on the banks of designated rivers.

Northern Michigan has gained immeasurably from the program. The Boardman, the Betsie, the Jordan, the Pigeon, and the Au Sable are among the state's 14 natural rivers that remain unspoiled by pollution and over
development. Property owners along these rivers consistently praise the program for enhancing their land values,
and quality of life.

Despite this record of accomplishment, the Natural River Act is under sharp attack. It started last year when a proposal to designate the Big Manistee and its main tributaries ran into powerful resistance from the property rights movement, which organized opposition among land owners and township boards.

Among the criticisms were that the natural rivers program shuts out local involvement, and that it causes citizens to be pushed around by Big Government.

The offensive against designation of the Big Manistee had its desired effect. Thirty-one townships along the main channel and its tributaries passed resolutions opposing designation. And property rights leaders found an influential champion for their cause in State Senator George A. McManus, Jr. (R-Traverse City),who is planning to re-introduce a controversial bill that conservation groups including Trout Unlimited say would seriously weaken the Natural River Act.

Supporters of the program say that Sen. McManus and the property rights leaders are 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.

The program's effectiveness is 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 and village along its course, and asks residents and local officials to serve on a Citizens' Advisory Committee.

• Together, the state and local representatives spend about 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 specific to the different topographies of the river.

• After designation, the zoning board that administers the program is made up entirely of local representatives.G

State Sen. George A. McManus, Jr., State Capitol, P.O. Box 30036, Lansing, MI 48909-7536, Tel. 517-373-1725; Keith Schneider at the Institute, P.O. Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616, Tel. 616-882-4723.

The first European settlers in northern Michigan found virgin forests of towering trees and abundant wildlife. By the late 19th century, there was little left except stumps, slash, wildfires, and ghost towns.

The clearcutting of Michigan's magnificent forests was seen as a matter of economic urgency, and of dominion over nature. The timber barons viewed it as their right and destiny to wantonly har vest natural resources -- their private property -- for personal financial gain.
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