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Speaker’s “Fit of Pique” Over Rivers

Granholm opposes Johnson's ideological war against conservation law

October 1, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jerry Dennis
  Written responses to a poll on the Detroit News Web site supported the Natural River Act’s protections for wild and scenic rivers by a wide margin.

LANSING — Legislation to weaken Michigan’s Natural River Act, championed by state Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson and a small group of conservative northern Michigan state lawmakers, raced through the House last month and into the Senate despite overwhelming citizen support for protecting the state’s most beautiful rivers. 

By a 66-44 vote that was largely along party lines, the House yesterday approved a bill that would give counties and townships along any newly designated Natural River the authority to rescind the protections if a majority of them vote to do so. The proposal passed by the House requires local governments to live with the new Natural River safeguards for at least four years before deciding whether they should be eliminated. The proposal applies only to Natural Rivers designated this year and any year afterwards. 

Mr. Johnson and the bill's other proponents said the proposed changes provide local officials and property owners more authority to decide how land is managed along Michigan's wild rivers. He asserted that the changes would not weaken the 1970 Natural River Act, which protects 16 of the state's most beautiful rivers. 

Opponents, though, argued that the legislation would seriously erode the state's constitutional duty to protect and preserve Michigan's wild rivers.  "These rivers and streams belong to all of the people of the State of Michigan, not just the riparian property owners," said Representative Chris Kolb, a Democrat of Ann Arbor. "The Natural Rivers program provides a comprehensive plan for each river that is individually tailored to meet the needs of that particular watercourse. It establishes a set of consistent guidelines that is necessary because these rivers and streams traverse numerous county and township boundaries."

The Speaker’s effort to change Michigan’s Natural River program also prompted a confrontation with Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who supports safeguards for Michigan’s wild rivers and is organizing Democrats in the Legislature to resist the Republican challenge to the 33-year-old Natural River Act.  “We don’t support the legislation,” said Dana Debel, the governor’s environmental advisor. “And we’re letting our caucus know that.”

The political skirmish between the Granholm administration and the House speaker, one of the most prominent since Ms. Granholm became governor in January, broke into public view on September 15 when Mr. Johnson assailed the state Department of Natural Resources for formally designating the Pine and Upper Manistee as Michigan’s newest Natural Rivers three days before.

The designations came after years of grassroots organizing by conservation groups, more than a year of public hearings and comment, and strong public acclaim. But Mr. Johnson, a lawmaker from LeRoy whose district is drained by both rivers, asserted that the formal protections were “a slap in the face” to property owners and local governments.

House Committee Overlooks Consistent Citizen Support 
Last week, during a September 24 hearing of the Republican-controlled House Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Committee, citizens rejected the Mr. Johnson’s assessment of the program and by a margin approaching four-to-one urged lawmakers to reject a proposal that would allow townships and counties to opt out of the Natural Rivers program that now protects the Pine and Upper Manistee.

The 11-member committee, however, approved the legislation after Speaker Johnson was joined by influential trade organizations, among them the Michigan Association of Home Builders and the Michigan Farm Bureau, in endorsing House Bill 4641 and HB 4642, which critics say are intended to weaken the river protection law.

The latter proposal would transfer the authority to designate new Natural Rivers from the director of the Department of Natural Resources to the Natural Resources Commission, the appointed citizen panel that oversees the DNR. The House unanimously approved HB 4642 on a 108-0 vote.   
The legislative debate is attracting significant public attention across Michigan. Radio call-in programs, newspaper opinion pages, and respected Internet Websites have swelled with discussion about the detail and value of Michigan’s Natural River Act. An Internet poll on the Detroit News Web site found support for maintaining the law’s protections for wild and scenic rivers outweighing the speaker’s position by a margin of nearly eight-to-one.  The Traverse City Record Eagle defended the Natural River Act in an editorial that called the speaker’s action a “fit of pique” and said “the speaker needs to catch up with his constituents.”

An Ideological Distaste For Public Oversight
Nevertheless, Speaker Johnson and a nucleus of conservative lawmakers continue to press for legislative changes that will test the resolve of leaders of both parties. Gov. Granholm has consistently voiced her support for improving the state’s stewardship of its water resources. "I will ask the Department of Natural Resources to recommend new rivers and streams worthy of protection under our nationally-recognized Natural Rivers Act,” then Attorney General Granholm told a crowd of conservationists in Grand Rapids during a campaign appearance in 2002. “We must manage and care for our natural resources by recognizing our responsibility to future generations."

And Republican leaders in the state Senate, particularly Majority Leader Ken Sikkema of Grandville and Senator Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck, have supported the recommendations of a Senate Task Force to protect the Great Lakes. That report, issued last year, called for the state to enhance protections for sensitive coastal and shoreline areas with modern zoning laws, which is what the Natural River Act does. Sen. Birkholz in particular, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee, has championed the need to improve stewardship of Michigan’s globally unique waterways.

Since 1970, when it was enacted, the Michigan Natural River Act has been a bulwark in the state’s program to ensure the integrity of clean water and some of the state’s most scenic places. The law provides for rivers to be protected through a regional zoning program that keeps new homes, businesses, and septic tanks set back from the banks in order to maintain a stream’s water quality and wild character.

A Useful Law That Republican Legislators Don’t Like
The Natural River Act now protects 16 rivers from the unintended consequences of ill-advised development. To shape the management plans for the Pine and Upper Manistee, the DNR invited local officials, landowners, and citizens to participate in a ten-year process that involved hundreds of working meetings, informational sessions, and public hearings. The DNR noted that more than 1,000 people testified or prepared written comments during the hearings and that at least twice as many people supported the law and the designations than opposed them.

Speaker Johnson and other northern Michigan Republicans, among them Representative Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord and Rep. Howard Walker of Traverse City, view the Natural River Act as interfering with property ownership, though surveys have shown that most landowners along designated rivers admire and support the law.

Earlier this year Mr. Bradstreet proposed House Bill 4641, which would enable local governments to decide whether or not to implement the new safeguards for the Pine and Upper Manistee and any new Natural Rivers. The goal, said Mr. Bradstreet and Mr. Walker, is to improve the way Michigan designates and manages Natural Rivers by shifting the balance of authority away from state environmental experts and toward individual township and county boards.

“The department is not a partner in the [Natural River designation] process,” said Rep. Bradstreet as he introduced his bill last week to the House Conservation Committee. “They are simply an overlord.”

Rep. Bradstreet testified that the Natural River designation process leaves local governments feeling powerless, ignores private property rights and, in the case of the Pine and Upper Manistee, unfairly burdens northern Michigan residents with the responsibility of caring for pristine waterways. His proposal would allow townships and counties affected by Natural River planning to rescind the designation by a majority vote after four years.

“Not all Natural Rivers could be undesignated,” Rep. Bradstreet said. “This applies to any designations made beginning 2003. Anything that has been designated a Natural River for some time would not be affected.”

Now Wait A Minute, Says The DNR
DNR officials and a growing number of Michigan residents, who have expressed strong opposition to the proposal, view the speaker’s attack as an attempt not only to roll back new protections solely along the Pine and Upper Manistee but also to signal the governor that any notion she might have of advancing environmental protection legislation will be met with stiff Republican resistance.

Dennis Knapp, the department’s legislative liaison, told the House Conservation Committee that the proposal would threaten the superior quality of the two streams, cripple the state Natural River Act, and jeopardize Michigan’s authority to manage all natural resources in a way that protects the broader public interest.

“An opt-out provision creates a risky precedent for statewide natural resource management programs,” Mr. Knapp said. “We’re convinced that many local governments would choose to opt out of many other programs that are locally unpopular but significantly important to the state: Endangered species recovery. Bovine tuberculosis eradication. Wetlands protection. Deer feeding bans to prevent the introduction of chronic wasting disease are only a few examples.”

Business and Land Owners Support the Law
Ray Schmidt, owner and operator of Schmidt Outfitters in Wellston, Mich., told the committee that high quality rivers such as the Pine and Manistee are essential to small businesses and Northern Michigan’s outdoor oriented economy. He urged the committee to reject House Bill 4641.

“One hundred percent of my company’s income is derived from folks that come to our region to enjoy the natural beauties and bounties of Michigan’s great outdoors,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Thirty percent of Manistee County’s revenues are tourist dollars, most of which are developed from the fishing industry. Over 70 percent of my township’s revenues are derived from fishing. I ask you folks to protect our great water resources by not allowing the gutting of the current [Natural River] program."

Despite a parade of similar public comments over the course of the three-hour hearing, the House Conservation Committee approved Rep. Bradstreet’s legislation and the controversy spilled onto to radio airwaves, newspaper stands, and computer screens across Michigan.

A September 24, 2003 Detroit Free Press editorial criticized Speaker Johnson for backing the proposal stating, “[Speaker Johnson’s] concern is the right of property owners to use their land as they want. But ownership does not equate to unfettered use, and the natural value of water properly ranks as a top priority here in Michigan.”
The Detroit News polled visitors to its Website.More than 80 percent of written responses said that the House should throw out the legislation allowing local governments to eliminate Natural River designations. “We live at the headwaters of the Manistee River,” wrote Kate and Tony Petrella. “We support designation of both the Upper Manistee and Pine, and vehemently oppose HB 4641. The bill would gut the Natural Rivers Program and set a dangerous precedent for all other DNR resource protection programs, all in a blatant attempt to reverse these two designations.”

Responding to the consistent criticism, two freshman Republican representatives who cosponsored Rep. Bradstreet’s legislation used air time on Interlochen Public Radio’s September 26 Points North call-in show to defend their position.

“With regards to the health of the river, there are laws in place now that do protect the river,” said Rep. Walker, who promised to protect the environment during his campaign last year.  “We have the Inland Lakes and Streams Act. We have the wetlands act. We have soil erosion acts that do protect the rivers right now. Because a river doesn’t have a Natural Rivers designation doesn’t mean we don’t have protection.”

“Clearly we have to honor private property rights,” added Rep. David Palsrok of Manistee, who also campaigned on a platform that included vigorous assurances that he would defend his district’s environment. “It can be a violation of property rights when the governments says, 'No you can’t do that.'  We have to let all our citizens exert their private property rights within reason.”

Senator Michelle McManus, a Republican of Traverse City who also appeared on the program, indicated that the state Senate may take a different view of the legislation. “I think these guys have it under control,” said Sen. McManus of her House colleagues.  “We’ll wait in the Senate until it gets to us.”

 “I’ve already talked to Senator Birkholz,” added Sen. McManus, “and she’ll be having some hearings on these bills.”

Andy Guy, a journalist who covers Great Lakes water issues, is an expert in the workings of the Michigan Natural River Act. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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