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The State’s Environmental Wrecking Ball

Catering to business contributors

July 23, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In 1992, before Antrim natural gas drillers had torn thousands of holes in the North Woods, top level officials at the Department of Natural Resources called a meeting with the oil industry, conservationists and members of Gov. John Engler’s executive staff. The purpose: to begin negotiating an effective plan for energy development that also would safeguard the forest. But before the planning gained any momentum the effort was shut down by Gov. John Engler.

Dr. Don Inman, who until he retired in June, 1997, was the highest ranking DNR official in the lower peninsula, participated and was dismayed at how the project ended. "The answer from the governor’s office was no. We’re not going to help you," recalled Dr. Inman during a news conference last week in Benzonia at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "We had the opportunity to find a way to extract the resource and at the same time reduce the damage to natural resources. The decision by the State of Michigan, the Administration, was not to take that issue on. The Michigan Oil and Gas Association has a tremendous amount of influence on the Administration."

Until the news conference, the governor’s role in halting the planning project had not been publicly disclosed. It is one of a series of pro-business decisions by the Engler Administration that Dr. Inman asserts steadily demoralized DNR staffers, weakened the agency’s resolve, and led to a steady deterioration of natural resources, particularly in northern Michigan. Along with a frenzy of drilling, the region has suffered from housing and industrial construction, timber cutting, road building, and the filling of wetlands.

Nor does it look as though things will improve soon, Dr. Inman said. In 1997, just two years after the department was split in half and weakened by executive order, a second order put in place a retirement plan that had the effect of clearing the agency of 211 employees, nearly 20 percent of the staff, and most of its effective senior leaders.

A wildlife biologist by training and a DNR resource specialist since 1973, Dr. Inman is the highest ranking state official yet to come forward with a broad critique of Gov. Engler’s environmental record. In the last several years he battled the Administration from the inside, seeking to strengthen the agency and defend its programs from what he believed to be ill-advised actions taken in the pursuit of economic development.

It was a painful experience professionally and personally. "This was an agency that I loved and still love," he said. "It wasn’t a job, it was a passion. My reason for being here is not to grind any axes or to point fingers. However, I hope it's a wake up call. I am concerned about the direction in which Michigan has been going.

"The department is a group of extremely well-educated, dedicated people. That’s the good news. But it’s become difficult in today’s atmosphere. They’ve had a significant loss of general fund dollars, a significant loss of bodies. I’d like to see that changed. I hope Michigan residents would too."

At the time he joined the DNR, the agency was staffed by an elite corps of highly skilled men and women whose careers advanced as a result of path breaking work on conserving water, air, wildlife, forests, fisheries, and the land. Very early in his career, Dr. Inman distinguished himself as one of the rising stars. Three of Michigan’s enduring environmental policy triumphs, all established within a three-year period at the end of the 1970s, were shaped and advanced directly by his work.

The first was the Pigeon River Country Hydrocarbon Development Plan, the single best land use program in the United States for guiding energy development in a sensitive environment. Under the plan, the oil industry and citizens groups worked with the DNR to confine energy development to the southern third of the 90,000-acre state forest, which covers parts of Cheboygan, Montmorency and Otsego counties. The plan strictly limited the number of wells, pipelines and processing plants while still enabling Shell Oil to tap oil and gas reserves worth more than $500 million.

Dr. Inman was a member of the DNR team that recommended that the royalties from oil and gas production be invested back into the Pigeon River Country State Forest for the purchase of recreational land. The idea was approved by the Legislature in 1976, and then expanded in the 1980s to become the Natural Resources Trust Fund, which last year invested more than $30 million to purchase park and recreational land across Michigan.

The third triumph is the 1979 Wetlands Protection Act. As Gov. William Milliken’s environmental policy adviser, he helped to shape and guide through the legislature the first state law to protect wetlands. Although it slowed the loss of wetlands for more than a decade, the Act is now under heavy attack by the Engler Administration. Last month, Russell Harding, the director of the Department of Environmental Quality, issued the largest wetland development permit ever. It will allow a company in Sanilac County to mine peat moss for home gardens and destroy 2,000 acres of the priceless Minden Bog.

"We’re talking about a 2,000-acre system which is diverse, productive and which is thousands of years old," Dr. Inman said. "We’re not talking about an action that will feed the masses or create new medicines to improve the quality of life. We’re talking about flower beds. To me that kind of environmental ethic is the same one that drove the shooting of Florida egrets for their plumes."

The weakness in leadership on conservation issues, said Dr. Inman, is particularly worrisome for the Traverse City region. "Over the next 20 years, there will be a tremendous growth," he said, citing the findings of a two-year old study. "We have the largest number of second homes in the United States. Those are going to become first homes. What does that mean to the ability to manage resources, for fisheries and habitat? How can we do it if we see northern Michigan develop like a number of areas of southern Michigan have developed. That’s a challenge that the leaders of this state should be taking on."

Dr. Inman was raised in Muskegon. He earned his doctorate degree in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University. Following graduation, he studied with Dr. Eugene Odom, a world renown ecologist and head of the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

Few DNR careers over the last quarter century have been as surpassingly productive as Dr. Inman’s. But in the last several years, he said, his influence within the agency declined, and he was shut out of key decisions as a reactionary agenda took hold.

When asked whether he would have retired if state leaders had allowed him to make a worthwhile contribution, Dr. Inman said: "I left a pretty good paying position. I got paid well for what I did. I felt I could make probably more of a contribution outside the agency at this point in my life. I didn’t feel very helpful there over the last several years."

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