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Governor, Citizens Say Yes to Natural Rivers

Her letter, public testimony discredit property rights claims

June 8, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  Governor Jennifer Granholm’s public support of Natural River designations for the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers reflects the views of many who spoke at statewide hearings about the issue.

LANSING — Delivering on her campaign promise to defend more of Michigan's pristine waterways from haphazard development, Governor Jennifer Granholm has endorsed efforts to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers with the state's Natural River Act. The governor's May 28 letter, which was addressed to the Natural Resources Commission, marks the first time in at least 15 years that a Michigan governor has publicly supported a Natural River designation.

In doing so, the governor’s letter struck a blow against claims that such environmentally based regulations are wrong because they violate private property rights. It was another of many recent signals that the property rights argument against governmental efforts to preserve both public and private rural landscapes may be losing traction with top state leaders and many Michigan citizens.

In late March, the state’s environmental quality director, Steve Chester, wrote a similarly supportive letter to K.L. Cool, the state’s natural resources director.  Keith Charters, chairman of the Natural Resources Commission, publicly stated on the day the governor wrote her letter that he, too, supports Natural River designations for both the Pine and Upper Manistee. He said that Mr. Cool now supports the designations as well.

Michigan citizens also support the designation; they turned out in strong numbers at the Department of Natural Resources’ recent Natural Rivers hearings to say so. And the vast majority of comments made at the governor’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council hearings in April, which attracted approximately 1,000 people, also overwhelmingly supported action by Lansing to protect natural resources.

A Sea Change at the Top
Gov. Granholm’s letter asserted that her fellow citizens have an inherent right to both enjoy Michigan’s rivers and see that they are protected for future generations.

“It is these rivers that provide recreation, aesthetics, boating, fisheries and wildlife habitat that so many Michigan residents enjoy,” she wrote to the commissioners. The governor added that healthy rivers can play a key role in building the state’s prosperity and that she supported more widespread use of the long-dormant act.

“It is time we utilize the Natural River Act to accomplish what it was intended to do: protect these undeveloped and unspoiled stretches of river to preserve the river’s values through a locally coordinated and supported management plan,” the governor wrote. “I will support the continued designation of natural rivers under Michigan’s nationally recognized Natural River Act.”

Ms. Granholm’s statement marks a sea change at the very top of the state’s administration. The Natural River Act was passed in 1970; in its first 18 years it was used to protect 14 different Michigan rivers. It requires riverfront property owners to carefully plan new residential and commercial development in ways that not only prevent erosion and pollution runoff, but also preserve the vegetation along riverbanks that provides critical wildlife habitat and shades and filters river water.

But the law’s opponents prevented the state from defending additional streams starting in 1988, claiming that the law constitutes overly restrictive government intrusion on personal freedoms and local community control.   

The Right to Ruin?
Some citizens aired those same arguments during the Department of Natural Resources’ 12 statewide hearings about the proposed Pine and Upper Manistee protection plans. Approximately 300 of the close to 700 citizens who attended the hearings testified; nearly every one claimed to support stronger protections for Michigan’s streams and rivers. But the comments were evenly divided between two clashing ideologies concerning the best way to manage the state’s freshwater resources.

The law’s critics consistently attacked the very idea of public stewardship of common natural resources. This was particularly true in Kalkaska, where property rights proponents outnumbered the proposed plan’s supporters by a two-to-one margin. They claimed that the plan erodes private property rights and eliminates the right of townships and counties to make independent zoning decisions.

A few such critics objected along seemingly more practical lines, alleging that state government is simply incapable of enforcing new protections because it is understaffed, under-funded, and routinely botches already-existing responsibilities such as snowmobile trail maintenance, fish stocking, and deer herd management. 

Some critics suggested that the Natural River Act needs legislative repair.

“We need an amendment to the Natural River Act that would require greater notification of private property owners, greater involvement from local elected officials, and a provision to opt out of the Natural River Act if a majority of elected officials believe the plan isn’t working,” said Brian Warner, a resident of Missaukee County who testified in Kalkaska, Reed City, and Lake City.

“With these potential changes this could be a good act again,” Mr. Warner added.

Those sentiments have attracted some support among state lawmakers. Republican Representatives Howard Walker of Traverse City and Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord have introduced amendments to the act that mirror Mr. Warner’s suggestions. The two bills are now before the House Committee on Conservation and Outdoor Recreation.

But the act’s supporters say the changes, contained in House Bills 4641 and 4642, would gut the designation process.

A Law That Works
In contrast to the citizens who spoke in Kalkaska, those who testified at hearings in Manistee, Cadillac, Reed City, Gaylord, and Grand Rapids were mostly very supportive of Natural Rivers. They said that the Natural River Act as it currently stands works just fine and public responsibility for maintaining clean, healthy, accessible rivers for all Michigan residents supersedes the right for individuals to develop their land solely as they please. Many argued that a state role is essential to safeguard the unique natural characteristics of the two rivers and that the act provides needed leadership and a useful, proven tool to help local governments accomplish that goal.

Proponents also rejected claims that the state failed to involve local officials in the designation process. They reminded the act’s critics that DNR scientists worked for nearly a decade with local governments and citizens to develop protection plans for the rivers. Upon designation, local governments have the opportunity to blend the new safeguards into their own existing zoning laws or create separate, local zoning review boards to administer the act. Sixty percent of the 1,698 total river miles covered by the state Natural River Act currently are managed solely by local zoning ordinances, according to state records.

One township official said that, without state assistance, the job of properly protecting the rivers simply would not get done.

“Some of those who oppose designation have asked why we need new rules when we have multiple regulations now,” said Steve Cunningham, a Boon Township supervisor. He testified in Cadillac that Natural River development standards should apply to all waterways in Wexford County. “Here in Wexford County, the question isn’t, ‘Should we have rules that guide development?’ We already do. We’ve got zoning in Wexford County. But we need to ask whether the rules are adequate. And the answer is, emphatically, ‘No.’”

Too Late is Forever
Many Natural River supporters used the hearings to communicate a sense of urgency. They pointed to the flood of new homes and businesses that are randomly spilling out of Cadillac, Grayling, Kalkaska, and other small towns into northern Michigan’s countryside, where they are already threatening to damage the rivers and kill fish and wildlife that depend on them.

“The question isn’t, ‘Will intense development occur here in northern Michigan?’ but rather, ‘How will it occur?’” Mr. Cunningham said. “Without responsible rules designed to guide development these rivers will be urbanized. And this unique opportunity to protect these natural jewels will be lost.”

A Flint resident pointed to his own experience and echoed Mr. Cunningham’s point.

“I’ve seen what can happen to a river when people don’t know how to take care of it,” said Charles Dumanois, who testified in Manistee. “I’ve spent some time on the River Rouge and that’s an awful river, an awful experience. I sure don’t want to see the same types of things happen to the rivers in northern Michigan.”

DNR Director Cool will make a final decision on Natural River designations for the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers sometime this summer.

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues, recently attended all 12 of the state’s public hearings on Natural Rivers. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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