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New DEQ Chief Endorses Natural Rivers

Chester encourages DNR to protect Pine, Upper Manistee

April 20, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  State environmental quality director Steve Chester’s support of Natural Rivers status for the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers could help change the state’s natural resource policies.

LANSING — In a move that reflects Governor Jennifer Granholm’s campaign promise to protect the state’s waterways, the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has formally urged the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources to designate the Pine and Upper Manistee Rivers as Natural Rivers. The endorsement by DEQ Director Steve Chester came in the form of a letter to DNR Director K.L. Cool. It stressed the importance of preventing damage to the two rivers by guiding development along their banks.

Mr. Chester’s March 31 letter to Mr. Cool also seems to send a message that goes beyond supporting the protection of two beautiful streams. Mr. Chester, a Granholm appointee, may be signaling Mr. Cool, a holdover from the Engler administration, that the new administration intends to act much more aggressively to protect the state’s natural resources and the health of its citizens and expects him to do the same. Throughout the 12-year Engler era, conservationists and environmentalists fiercely criticized the DEQ and the DNR, asserting that both departments were hopelessly skewed towards unwise development.

“This is a return to the stewardship that we used to see exhibited by the state's environmental agency,” Dave Dempsey, policy advisor for the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, said of Mr. Chester’s letter. “It's one of many recent signs that the DEQ is now an active advocate of good environmental protection instead of an active impediment to it, as it was during the 1990s.”

In his letter to Mr. Cool, Mr. Chester called the Pine and Upper Manistee “unique” fresh water resources of state and national significance that merit inclusion in Michigan’s Natural Rivers Program, which is administered by the DNR.

“The Department of Environmental Quality supports the designation of the Pine and the Upper Manistee as state Natural Rivers,” he wrote. “Designation will help ensure that the excellent water quality and wild and scenic nature of these rivers will be preserved for future generations.”

Mr. Chester also made an economic argument in support of protecting both rivers. “The DEQ, with money from the Clean Michigan Initiative fund and federal [Section] 319 dollars, has invested $400,000 in these rivers,” he wrote, referring to money from both the state and federal government aimed at controlling polluting runoff into rivers.  “Establishing reasonable development standards in the riparian corridor will enhance this investment."

New Direction Gains Momentum
Mr. Chester’s endorsement, which represents the official position of the state’s lead environmental agency, is the latest victory for a coalition of citizens, local officials, and state water resource experts who insist that clear, consistent, and enforceable riverbank construction guidelines are the most effective way to help prevent pollution and manage erosion along the Pine and Upper Manistee, two major Lake Michigan tributaries.

The grassroots campaign to defend the rivers, led by the Pine River Watershed Coalition and the Upper Manistee River Association, gained momentum in February 2002 when Democrat Jennifer Granholm, then a gubernatorial candidate, promised a comprehensive public policy to protect the wetlands, underground aquifers, rivers, and lakes that make up the Great Lakes ecosystem.    

In addition to tougher enforcement of water quality standards and new laws to prevent Great Lakes diversion, Ms. Granholm also called for designating more waterways as Natural Rivers. She noted that the program, which was established in 1970 and currently protects 14 streams from development pressures, had not been expanded under Republican John Engler’s administration, due largely to protests from property rights activists.

Slightly more than 100 days into the Granholm administration, however, the momentum has clearly shifted. The Natural Rivers Program has received an outpouring of public support since DNR Director Cool recently advised his staff to hold public hearings on the plan to designate the Pine and Upper Manistee.

The Environment’s New Advocate
Gov. Granholm appointed Mr. Chester as DEQ director in December 2002. He previously served in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as deputy director of the Office of Criminal Enforcement and as an attorney for Miller, Canfield, Paddock, and Stone, one of Michigan’s larger law firms.

He inherited a department whose regulatory authority and workforce morale were greatly reduced by Mr. Engler’s policies. Mr. Chester vowed to rebuild Michigan’s reputation as a national leader of environmental policy.

Under its new chief, the DEQ has acted swiftly to meet this goal. It established an advisory council to encourage dialogue among advocates for business, the environment, and local government. It endorsed legislation to control phosphorus in dishwashing detergents, furnished testimony favoring legislation that would for the first time regulate groundwater withdrawal, and opposed legislation that would allow coastal landowners to run rampant over publicly owned bottomlands.

The department also conducted an investigation that led to the conviction of an Upper Peninsula developer who illegally constructed a road system through regulated wetlands without a state permit. The developer was fined more than $35,000 and given two years probation.

In his recent letter Mr. Chester, who said during his Senate confirmation hearings that lack of a comprehensive land use policy is the single most important threat facing Michigan’s natural resources, noted that the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers flow through nine counties and numerous townships. It is important, he argued, to have consistent management guidelines throughout the various jurisdictions in the watershed to guarantee that the streams remain healthy.

“The DEQ believes that these rivers need to be protected throughout the entire river corridor,” Mr. Chester wrote. “And the Natural Rivers program provides an excellent mechanism to adopt consistent standards.”

Opponents React
But opponents of the Natural Rivers Program, some of whom privately acknowledge that Mr. Chester’s endorsement makes designation of the Pine and Upper Manistee more likely, contend the state initiative has more to do with taking away individual property rights and local government authority than it does with encouraging healthy waterways.

“I reserve reaction (to Mr. Chester’s endorsement),” said Mark Miltner, a resident of Luther who has campaigned against the current Natural Rivers plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee. “But I would ask whether he has read the plan. Because if you read this plan you can’t come to the conclusion that it honors the river or the people of Michigan.”

Mr. Miltner said that some Natural Rivers supporters, particularly members of the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited, hijacked the process of creating the plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee. He feels that special interest groups have misrepresented the final product as reasonable environmental stewardship.

Opponents such as Mr. Miltner say the proposed development guidelines, which would require private landowners to maintain up to a 100-foot-wide swath of natural vegetation along each river’s banks and set new buildings and septic systems 100 to 150 feet back from riverbanks, are overly restrictive. They also say the plan would limit the public’s ability to access the rivers and whittle away the power of local governments to make independent land use decisions.

Their arguments have gained traction with some of the state’s senior Republican leaders. Representative Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord and House Speaker Rick Johnson  of LeRoy have publicly voiced displeasure with the current plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers. However neither lawmaker is actively working to kill it.

A Foundation for Great Lakes Protection
In supporting the Natural Rivers management plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee, Mr. Dempsey and the Michigan Environmental Council — which represents over 60 state environmental groups — join more than 50 citizens groups across Michigan that support clean, quiet, and scenic waterways and have also endorsed the plan. Others include the Cadillac Area Citizens for Clean Air, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, and the Michigan chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection, a nonprofit group based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That group’s honorary board members include longtime U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers (R-Michigan).

“Natural Rivers protection is one of the building blocks of Great Lakes protection,” said Mr. Dempsey. “However, (Mr. Chester’s support) is not the end of the debate. Citizens will still have to speak out forcefully to assure designation. The DEQ's position simply signals that the state's environmental agency sees designation as in the public interest.”

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues, recently returned from the World Water Forum in Japan. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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