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Auctioning The Future to Private Interests

In face of opposition, state gives away public domain

June 28, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It was Aldo Leopold, the writer and forester, who counseled more than half a century ago that the basis of successful conservation was to extend to nature the same ethical sense of responsibility that people extend to each other. As vacationers head north this summer to delight in Michigan’s wild places, they also need to be mindful of Gov. John Engler, his environmental advisors, and a group of arch-conservatives in the legislature led by Sen. George McManus (R-Traverse City) who are intent on making those very same wild places ever more scarce.

In the past three months alone, the Administration and the legislature have teamed up on a quiet, effective, and completely misguided program aimed at transferring public resources into the hands of a select group of development interests.

    • In April, K.L. Cool, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, agreed to sell 1,850 acres of public forest near Grayling – nearly three square miles – solely for purposes of economic development. The sale was the sixth in a series of transactions since 1998 that have conveyed large parcels of public forest to developers as the Engler Administration seeks to speed development along the Interstate 75 corridor from Roscommon to Grayling.

    • In May, the state House Committee on Natural Resources heard remarkable testimony from Charles Moskowitz, a geologist and oil man from Mt. Pleasant, who told lawmakers that the state is losing millions of dollars annually in royalty income from natural gas production, much of it from state-owned energy reserves. Moskowitz charged that companies are under reporting, by as much as 50 percent, the amount of natural gas they are producing, an assertion denied by the energy industry. The question now under investigation in Lansing is whether gas companies are pocketing a fortune in unpaid royalties due the state Treasury and private mineral owners?

    • In June, the legislature bowed to pressure from the forest products industry and approved a measure that requires the DNR to mark and put up for sale 69,000 acres of timber from state lands, a record amount. The vote came even as the DNR is having trouble meeting earlier quotas that the legislature began setting in 1997. In too many cases, as a result, beautiful stands are falling to the saw, according to the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club. In Manistee County, for instance, foresters this spring marked for harvesting acres of mature hardwoods that served as one of the state’s best nesting sites for the threatened red-shouldered hawk. DNR officials relented only after citizens and Pleasanton Township officials intervened.

What makes the grab for public resources especially troubling is that polls in Michigan and nationally consistently find that citizens overwhelmingly support more careful stewardship of natural resources, more investment in open space, not less. In 1998 and 1999, voters approved more than 70% of the 379 ballot measures across the country that called for spending more money on conservation and wild land purchases, according to State Resource Strategies, a Washington-based research group.

The message from citizens is so strong that in May Republicans in the House of Representatives joined Democrats to pass a 15-year, $45 billion conservation fund –financed primarily by federal offshore oil and gas royalties – to buy land for parks, pay for wildlife protection, and restore damaged coastal areas. If the bill is approved by the Senate, Michigan could receive nearly $60 million annually.

Although Gov. Engler supported the Congressional initiative, it’s difficult to understand why. Mr. Engler’s 10-year reign has been characterized by slipshod management of natural resources. Under his watch not one of the state’s beautiful rivers has been added to the list of 14 Natural Rivers that already have received special protection under a 1970 state law. State environmental officials are even seeking to violate the 1976 Sand Dune Protection and Management Act and allow a company to mine a protected dune near St. Joseph.

The crumbling of Michigan’s once vaunted reputation for stewardship has been hastened by the legislature, and especially Sen. McManus. The chairman of the Farming and Agribusiness Commitee set the stage for auctioning large blocks of forest with hearings and a report in 1995 in which he argued that Michigan has too much public land. In 1996, McManus led a failed effort to weaken the Natural River Act, arguing that it was an attack on the rights of local governments by big government. Last year McManus abandoned that line when he pushed through a new law that will accelerate the development in sensitive watersheds of large hog and dairy factories, and the mountains of manure they produce. The law does so by concentrating regulatory power in the state Agriculture Department, and largely eliminating the authority of rural townships to oversee such operations.

During the last decade, for unfathomable reasons, the Engler Administration and its allies in the legislator built up a contempt for stewardship, a disdain for the inherent value of wild things and scenic places. Such somber arrogance and rigid attitudes represent a departure from Michigan’s tradition of carefully measuring and taking steps to care for the beauty of its landscape. As more citizens take note this summer of the abuses, they may vote more alertly in November to elect conservation-minded members of the House, which may well mark the end of this unfortunate era of neglect in Lansing.

(A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press on June 28, 2000).

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