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Senator Reconsiders Bill to Weaken Natural River Act

"Property Rights" activists still continue to push for repeal

September 1, 1997 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

State Senator George A. McManus Jr. (R-Traverse City), who sponsored a bill in 1996 that would have seriously weakened Michigan's exemplary Natural River Act, is reconsidering whether to introduce the legislation in 1998.

The Senator's change of heart is the result of statewide organizing by conservation groups to protect the Natural Rivers program. After receiving a significant amount of criticism about his bill from constituents and the regional press, Sen. McManus "is in no hurry to do anything concerning the Act," said Gary Henderson, the senator's chief administrative aide.

The 1970 Natural River Act is widely regarded as one of the best programs in the nation for carefully managing valuable public resources while balancing the interests of private property owners. The Act gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to set restrictions on home construction, dock-building, logging, brush cutting, agriculture, oil and gas development, and other uses within a maximum 400-foot-wide corridor along each bank of a designated river.

Rules for managing the zone are worked out by the DNR in conjunction with a Citizens Advisory Committee made up of local elected officials, property owners, and residents.

Supporters of the program, including most property owners along Michigan's 14 designated Natural Rivers, applaud the law for its flexibility, its effectiveness, and the fact that local governments and citizens play a decisive and ongoing role. The beauty and clarity of the designated Natural Rivers is testament to the program's value.

However, in recent years "property rights" activists have organized aggressively to defeat designation of the Big Manistee River, prevent the inclusion of any more rivers under the program, and roll back the protections already in place. With more rhetoric than evidence, they accuse the state of being heavy-handed in administering the law and ignoring the concerns of local government.

For example, at a hearing last fall the Grand Traverse County Commission heard from people who oppose the law's regulation of land along the Boardman River. The testimony included the following inaccurate statement from Al Howard, former supervisor of Mayfield Township: "The state planning under the Natural River Act is centralized planning, just like under Soviet communism. We need local control. Right now, the power is in the hands of one unelected bureaucrat in Lansing."

Opponents of the Natural Rivers program are working with the Citizens Alliance for Regulatory Reform (CARR), a property rights group that states "environmental laws and regulations threaten our basic freedom."

CARR members have appeared before township boards and county commissions across northern Michigan, asserting that the state is usurping the authority of local governments to oversee land in their jurisdictions. The tactic has been surprisingly effective. About 40 local governments have approved resolutions opposing any additional Natural River designations, and calling for significant weakening of the law.

Supporters of the Natural River Act maintain that CARR distorts the role of local governments and overlooks the Act's remarkable success. Said Anne Kaminski, a property owner on the Betsie River, "The Natural Rivers Act offers protection to some of our best natural resources and to our quality of life. It also protects property values because when you protect water quality you protect property values."

She added, "The regulations under the Natural River Act balance the rights of property owners with protection for the river so we all can benefit. If anyone has a problem with the regulations they can go before a local river zoning review board, made up of local people who are your neighbors. It's a very good law."

As northern Michigan's population increases and development accelerates, some government officials and environmental leaders are advocating a regional planning approach that encompasses entire watersheds. For this approach to succeed, say supporters, it should be modeled after a strengthened, not weakened, Natural Rivers Act.

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