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House Speaker Opposes Natural River Protections

Johnson says state program insults freedom

January 31, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Keith Schneider
  In recent years conservative lawmakers repeatedly beat back attempts to revive the state Natural River Act, asserting it limits personal freedom to develop private property. The law, though, is revered in Benzie County where it has helped keep the Betsie River wild and free for three decades.

CADILLAC, MI — Despite overwhelming citizen support, Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson is bowing to pressure from property rights proponents and publicly opposing permanent protection for two pristine rivers that flow through his district.

In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Mr. Johnson’s spokesman, Matt Resch, said the speaker believes the proposed plan to formally designate the Pine and Upper Manistee as state Natural Rivers infringes on individuals’ freedom to build homes, businesses, and docks along the banks.

“Speaker Johnson does not favor designating the Pine as a Natural River at this time,” Mr. Resch said. “He is committed to policies that protect the environment and encourage responsible land use, and he certainly respects what the river means for the region’s economy and quality of life. But he believes the current plan is a threat to private property rights.” Mr. Resch added that the speaker also opposes Natural River designation for the Upper Manistee River.

While property rights groups praised the decision, conservationists were immediately critical. They noted that in staking out his position Mr. Johnson rejected the recommendation of scientists with the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR worked with local officials and citizens to draft protection plans for both rivers that they assert are practical and prevent development from degrading water quality and diminishing the wild character of both rivers. Mr. Johnson’s critics also noted that the speaker’s position is at odds with the recommendations of a Republican-led state Senate Task Force on the Great Lakes, which in 2001 called on Michigan to renew its commitment to protecting natural rivers. Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, also supports expanding Natural River protections to more of Michigan’s wild rivers.

“This is a hell of a way to run natural resources,” said Jim Maturen, a former Osceola County commissioner , who said he and other conservationists are frustrated by Mr. Johnson’s timidity. “A small minority interest is holding this plan up and the DNR is playing politics. We need some leadership to protect our freshwater resources.”

The Community Responds
Conservationists generally regard Michigan's Natural River Act as the most effective state statute ever enacted to safeguard the scenic character of undeveloped rivers. Since the law's passage in 1970, Michigan has protected 14 rivers from ill-advised development.

The Natural River Act uses basic zoning to keep waterways clean and quiet while allowing for riverfront homes, docks, and other private land uses. Official designation of the Pine and upper reaches of the Manistee would carry forward a plan created by local residents to prevent ruining the streams with erosion and pollution from future construction projects. It would require landowners to protect the rivers by limiting their ability to remove trees and plants and requiring specific setbacks for buildings and septic systems, according to state officials.

While plans for designating waterways as Natural Rivers originate at the local level, they do require final approval from the state DNR before they can take effect. During the past six years conservative lawmakers in the state Senate and House repeatedly have beaten back attempts to implement new safeguards along the Pine and Upper Manistee in order to appease a small, influential group of critics. These critics contend the proposed regulations would limit the personal freedom to develop private land and violate the authority of local governments, many of which lack the basic laws to guard both water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. No new Natural River has been designated since 1988.

Two citizens groups, the Pine River Watershed Coalition and the Upper Manistee River Association, are pushing to revive the state program. But in many ways the current campaign is a product of Mr. Johnson’s own leadership.

In April 2001, Speaker Johnson introduced a package of new laws to encourage community growth that preserves farmland, invigorates central cities, and guarantees clean water. Among those measures was an ambitious effort to coordinate planning and zoning activities among neighboring local governments.

The draft Natural Rivers plan for the Pine-Upper Manistee river system, according to those familiar with it, does just that: It synchronizes development guidelines for the nine counties and 29 townships charged with managing construction along the watershed’s main streams and tributaries.

“This Natural Rivers plan is a logical extension of Rick’s land use vision,” Mr. Maturen said. “As Speaker of the House, he should really push this initiative because a majority of his constituents embrace the idea. The smartest thing Speaker Johnson can do is declare the protection of our natural resources paramount, defend the Natural Rivers Act from attack, and demonstrate his leadership abilities in support of the DNR and the public’s freshwater resources.”

When pressed on this point, Mr. Resch said Rep. Johnson supports a small step forward: the effort underway in the DNR to submit the draft protection plan to public review. Mr. Resch stressed that Rep. Johnson is not mounting a campaign to defeat the proposal and that he would not resist publicly presenting the plan for citizen comment. “You can never have too much public input on something like this,” he said. “I suspect Rep. Johnson would favor a broader and more open conversation to learn more about the issue.”

Anglers and environmentalists said their disappointment in Mr. Johnson’s decision not to back the draft plan was tempered by his endorsement of public hearings. In February, representatives from a coalition of environmental and conservation organizations will formally ask the Natural Resources Commission, the citizen advisory panel to the DNR, to formally introduce the proposed plan for citizen review.

The hearings, say proponents, will provide them the opportunity to publicly demonstrate deep local and statewide support for improving stewardship of the Pine and Upper Manistee and perhaps earn the backing of key state leaders.

Clear Public Opinion
The Osceola County Board of Commissioners pledged unanimous support for the Natural Rivers Act in September 1997 after citizens, natural resource experts, and local officials like Mr. Maturen participated in a series of study groups and public meetings to create the Pine-Upper Manistee management plan. The official resolution expressed concern that the lack of meaningful zoning standards and the frequent turnover of local officials could allow future development to proceed without regard for maintaining the waterways as a cold-water trout streams.

The same fears run through neighboring Wexford County, which, like Osceola County, is in Rep. Johnson’s district and is part of the 1,800 square mile Pine-Manistee watershed.  More than 95 percent of the county’s residents support regulations to safeguard the quality of local lakes and streams, according to a 2000 study, Wexford County Residents’ Views of Land Use Planning and the Quality of Life, that was published by Central Michigan University.

The report also revealed that 76 percent of residents specifically favor the Natural Rivers Act as a tool to guide land use and protect pristine river and that 89 percent favor preserving vegetation along riverbanks, one of the Act’s most contentious, and key, components.

Wexford County Commissioners responded by creating a new land use plan that is due for release in draft form for public comment this spring. It sets countywide goals for expanding the economy while protecting signature natural resources. It defines the Pine and Manistee as special and unique and points to the Natural Rivers Act as a possible way to protect them for future generations.

A Basic Approach to Clean Water
“The ultimate goal is to protect water quality and scenic beauty,” said Mike Solomon, Wexford County Drain Commissioner and chair of the county planning commission. “It doesn’t matter whether we call the Pine or the Manistee a Natural River. But the standards included in the (Natural Rivers) plan are good, solid ways to protect the two rivers. They are not overly restrictive and I do not believe that they will hinder future development.”

Trout Unlimited, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, among other conservation and environmental leaders, also support the Pine and Manistee proposal.

“Water quality is a goal, but this is a huge land use issue,” said Mark Tonello, a fish biologist in the DNR Cadillac field office. “You’d think the heavy hitters would be all over this plan with all the talk at the state level about a Smart Growth commission and improving development patterns. Programs like Natural Rivers should be the cornerstone of that discussion.”
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

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