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Two Lawmakers to DNR: Fore!

Legislators push state to sell its forestland for fourth Oscoda golf course

September 2, 2009 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Two state legislators want to override the DNR’s rejection of plans to sell 475 acres of forestland to Lakewood Shore Resort for its fourth 18-hole golf course.
Every hunting season, Vicki Good’s husband, Lloyd, roams through 475 acres of well-preserved state forestland in Oscoda Township, in search of the perfect buck.

Tami Pullen, a conservation officer by trade, does the exact same thing. She takes her hunting dogs along and looks for deer, grouse, or wild turkey. Every single time, she says, she marvels at the beauty of the state-owned forest and its diverse wildlife.

“It’s beautiful,” Ms. Pullen said. “Different hardwoods, wildlife, and wetlands.”

Yet despite the strong love many area residents have for the forest, which is near the Lake Huron shoreline, a pair of Michigan state lawmakers are trying to force the state to sell it to a wealthy golf course developer who already operates three golf courses in the area.

The actions of the lawmakers, state Representative Joel Sheltrown (D-West Branch) and state Senator Tony Stamas (R-Midland), have angered some Oscoda Township residents, who say that the two legislators are catering to golf course developer Boyd S. Aldridge and his sons instead of acting in the public’s interest. They also point out that the legislators’ push for the land sale flies in the face of repeated rejections of the idea by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“We need to maintain this state land,” said Susan Thiel, a DNR unit manager in Grayling who opposes the sale. “Fifty years down the road, we don’t know what its use will be.”

But Representative Sheltrown and Senator Stamas refuse to back down. Last month, Mr. Sheltrown introduced legislation that would force the DNR to sell the land to Mr. Aldridge. The bill passed out of the state House of Representatives with lightning speed and is now in the hands of the state Senate.

Township residents, as well as another state senator who believes his fellow lawmakers should stay out of the DNR’s decision-making process, have responded. The residents are mounting a petition drive to stop the forcing legislation in the state Senate. Meanwhile, state Senator John Gleason (D-Flushing) is asking Michigan residents who oppose the forestland sale to send him written comments on the matter.

If the state Senate passes the bill, only a veto by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm could stop the sale.

Senator Stamas did not return a phone call or an email from the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service about the issue. Representative Sheltrown however, told the news service that the land sale is in the best interest of the public. In a rural area with unemployment near 20 percent, he says, the 60 jobs that the developers are promising  for the new golf course makes a forced sale a good idea.

He added that Michigan already has massive amounts of state land that it struggles to maintain in the current terrible financial times.

“It's not tasteful for me to do,” Mr. Sheltrown said of his attempt to force a sale. “But people are struggling for jobs. It’s not just another golf course, and if it were that, I wouldn’t have supported it.”

Deep into Golf
Boyd “Stan” Aldridge, the developer seeking the land, is a man of wealth. According to an online article in Michigan Golfer, he once tried to purchase another of Michigan’s cherished assets—the Detroit Red Wings hockey team—but was outbid by Mike Illitch.

“It’s a good thing I didn’t get it,” Mr. Aldridge told Michigan Golfer. “I would’ve made George Steinbrenner look like a weenie.”

Mr. Aldridge is widely respected in the state’s golfing community, and those on both sides of the land purchase argument acknowledge that golfing draws many tourists to northern Michigan.

Mr. Aldridge’s son Kevin is a golf course developer, and the elder Aldridge owns Indianwood Golf & Country Club, near Lake Orion, in southeast Michigan. The course has hosted two United States Golf Association U.S. Women’s Open championships.

The debate, however, centers on the Aldridges’ Lakewood Shores complex, which is located in Oscoda Township, near the unincorporated village of Oscoda, where 900 people live. It features three 18-hole courses. The Aldridges say they have special plans for the 475 acres of adjacent state land they want to buy: A replica of the legendary Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland, the site of many British Open Championships.

“The Lakewood Shores team has secured the complete topographical sketches of the historically renowned golf course,” the developers stated in a presentation to the Oscoda Township Board of Trustees.

The developers added that the parcel, while large by most peoples’ standards, is a very small portion of local state land.

“There is over 200,000 acres of nearby public forestland,” the developers said, pointing out that the parcel comprises only “.2 percent of the nearby public land.”

To help make its case in the state Legislature, the developers have reportedly hired Kelley Cawthorne, a highly influential lobbying firm co-founded by former state attorney general Frank Kelley.

Representative Sheltrown, who told the news service that he has not accepted a dime in political contributions from Mr. Aldridge, said that the state has too much state forestland that it can’t maintain, and that the state is constantly adding new land to its stockpile. He also said that while he, too, appreciates the natural beauty of the north woods and supports conservation, he thinks that the state should sell this particular plot to develop jobs.

“We have no policy on how much land is enough land,” Mr. Sheltrown said. “We don’t know. No one down there (in Lansing) knows. They just buy more.”

Then he repeated a phrase that is often thrown at opponents of new development in northern Michigan—one that he plainly does not wanted pointed at him.

“There are people in the southern part of the state who I say follow the ‘three Ps’ for northern Michigan,” he said “Keep it pure, keep it pristine, and keep ‘em poor.”

Setting a Precedent?
The State of Michigan has 3.9 million acres of state forests and purchases roughly $30 million in land every year through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

The trust fund is popular in Michigan; many state residents apparently see Michigan’s natural landscape as irreplaceable and well worth protecting. In statewide elections, Michigan voters repeatedly support preserving more state land by approving higher caps on the amount of money the trust fund can hold and spend on new land acquisitions.

The state DNR is tasked with protecting those resources, and the agency clearly sees selling the 475-acres as a bad idea. The DNR’s Mrs. Thiel said her agency has repeatedly reviewed the developer’s purchase proposal and rejected it. Unlike a golf course, she said, the land’s wetlands, diverse tree stands, and wildlife habitats can’t be replicated.

“It’s great wildlife habitat, and it has ridges of aspen and oak that have different age classes intermixed with small wetlands,” she said.

And while Representative Sheltrown’s desire for more jobs is widely shared by northern Michigan residents, many natural resource experts and a number of local citizens seem to view the lawmakers’ attempts to force the DNR to sell the forestland against its wishes as a misguided attempt to force bad policy on the agency.

The Northwoods Call, a small biweekly newspaper for hunters published in Petoskey, called the proposed forcing legislation by Mr. Sheltrown, chair of the House Tourism, Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources Committee, a state land “rip off.”

The Michigan United Conservation Clubs said a legislatively forced sale is a bad idea because of the precedent it would set.

“MUCC opposes the sale not only because it would result in a 475-acre decrease in contiguous wildlife habitat and public hunting access, but because the legislature should not be interfering with resource management and public land sales when a fair and equitable process already exists for the sale and/or transfer of state public lands,” the MUCC told its members in its online newsletter, Conservation Insider.

“The land in question is well utilized by hunters, contains quality wildlife habitat and valuable timber yields. Besides setting a poor precedent of legislative resource management, neither bill contains a reverter condition that would prevent a development change in heart from golf course to a different venture.”

The club’s statement added that concern about such a switch is reasonable, given that 20 of Michigan’s 800 golf courses have closed since 2006.

Making Sense?
Ms. Good, the township resident whose husband hunts on the state land, said she’s baffled by her legislators’ actions and is very angry with Representative Sheltrown in particular. Ms. Good said he originally tried to force the sale through legislation last year, but withdrew it because of local public opposition. Now he seems to be bending over backwards to help a golf course developer get his way.

“We don’t care if they develop a golf course, but they shouldn’t sell state land to do it,” Mrs. Good said, adding that there are multiple private acreage listings available for Mr. Aldridge in the immediate area if he really wants to build another golf course in the township.

Other local residents see their own township representatives doing Mr. Aldridge’s bidding for the state land as well, and they don’t like it.

Although the Oscoda Township economic development team publicly urged the DNR to sell the land to Mr. Aldridge, opponents point out that the township board neither voted on nor endorsed the proposal beforehand. When the township did act last month, trustees voted to supported developing another golf course, but not on state forestlands.

Township resident Rebecca Schirrick said the developers’ economic argument makes no sense. She says that when she drives by Lakewood Shores, the parking lot isn’t packed; often times, she said, it looks mostly empty.

“From a business standpoint, golf is an expensive sport, and there’s been a lot of people who’ve had a lot of economic trouble keeping golf courses going,” Mrs. Schirrick said. “It really doesn’t really make good sense to me.”

Ms. Schirrick also questions the promise of 60 golf course jobs. She notes that Lakewood Shores already has a full staff maintaining its three existing golf courses, and golf course maintenance is not her idea of new, quality employment in her community.

The DNR’s Mrs. Pullen, meanwhile, insists that it’s not a loss of hunting access that worries her.

“When you lose a piece of land like that, you yourself don’t just lose it,” she said. “You lose it for future generations forever.”

Glenn Puit, a veteran investigative reporter, is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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