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DNR Strikes Back

Agency confronts disinformation about Natural Rivers

April 10, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  The results of unwise, thoughtless development along a Michigan river. Property rights activists strongly oppose the Natural Rivers Act, which is designed to protect Michigan’s most pristine rivers from such damage.

REED CITY, MI — In a sharp break with its conduct under the Engler administration, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is directly confronting the disinformation campaigns waged by property rights activists who oppose the state’s Natural Rivers Program. The shift in strategy comes as the agency prepares to hold public hearings on a proposed plan — five years in the making — to designate the Pine and Upper Manistee as the first new state-protected Natural Rivers since 1988.

The DNR’s new strategy underscores how drastically the political landscape has changed since last fall’s state election. During the previous 12 years of the Engler administration the DNR bowed to property rights activists, including former Gov. John Engler and conservative lawmakers such as former state Senator George McManus of Traverse City, who in 1996 proposed legislation that would have essentially abolished the Natural Rivers program. Mr. McManus’ bill was widely condemned in northern Michigan, particularly in Benzie and other counties that are home to state-protected Natural Rivers. But last year, buoyed by active public support for more aggressive environmental protection, both the Republican and Democratic  gubernatorial candidates called for new policies to secure the Great Lakes region’s unique fresh water resources and, more specifically, reviving the Natural Rivers Program.

Governor Jennifer Granholm's election appears to have made a big difference. For the first time, the DNR is adding open informational forums to the public hearings it has scheduled for late April and early May as part of the Natural Rivers designation process for the two rivers. According to a DNR official, the agency is doing so to combat the tactics some people are using against the program.

“Opponents of new safeguards for the Pine and Upper Manistee continue to spread misconceptions about the Natural Rivers Program that often are readily taken up by local government leaders and citizens,” said DNR Northern Michigan River Administrator Dan Pearson, who is based in Gaylord. “We want to set the record straight about how this program actually works.”

Truth, Lies, And A New Kind of Public Hearing
Since its enactment in 1970, the DNR has used the Natural Rivers Act to protect 14 different rivers. Proponents of Natural Rivers, which include fresh water experts, state scientists, people living along already protected rivers, and many landowners along the Pine and Upper Manistee, commonly view the program as a basic method to curb the negative consequences of urban sprawl and manage future development projects in a way that limits pollution and erosion.  

But critics, Mr. Pearson said, falsely contend that applying Natural Rivers standards to streams like the Pine and Upper Manistee will confiscate private property, arrest the ability to make local decisions about land use policy, and establish unreasonable building guidelines.

These accusations are unfounded but effective,  according to officials and citizens familiar with the Natural Rivers Program. And they have beleaguered the state initiative since its creation in 1970, at times eroding local support to the point that the DNR has chosen to back off plans to safeguard state waterways. This occurred most recently in 1998 when the Pine and Manistee rivers initially were proposed for designation.
Now, five years later, the DNR’s staff is again preparing for official public hearings, which will be held in 12 locations around the state between April 28 and May 12, and for the open forums that will precede each one. 

“This is not something we have done before,” Mr. Pearson said. “We felt it would be a good idea to get into a situation where folks could walk in, look at the maps, and pose questions to DNR officials before we get into the more formal hearings.”

What people who attend the pre-hearing meetings will see, say proponents, is a plan that proposes reasonable standards, does not violate private property rights, and offers ample opportunity for local citizens to participate in management of land uses and water quality. The ultimate goals of the informational forums, according to officials, are to answer citizens’ questions and establish legitimacy for an initiative that has not been invoked to protect a Michigan river since Ronald Reagan was President.

Mr. Pearson said the forums would focus on debunking the three myths property rights activists are working hardest to propagate.

Myth 1: Unreasonable Standards
The Natural Rivers Program uses zoning laws to keep waterways clean and quiet, but does not forbid riverfront homes, docks, and other private land uses, Mr. Pearson said. It does establish building setbacks for future development along the mainstreams of the rivers — 150 feet from the water’s edge and 50 feet from the crest of a bluff. Along tributaries, the recommended setback is 100 feet. The maximum setback on any of Michigan’s other Natural Rivers, where property owners have been very enthusiastic about the law, is 200 feet.

“One common misconception is that you can’t rebuild your house in the same location if it’s destroyed by fire,” Mr. Pearson added. “But there are provisions to do that in most circumstances. In any township, county, or municipality that has a zoning ordinance, there are always procedures for variances to the development standards.”

The draft plan also requires landowners to maintain native vegetation along the river’s edge, a basic way to slow erosion, maintain cooler water temperatures vital to many species of fish, filter out human-induced pollution from parking lots and agricultural uses, and retain scenic qualities and wildlife habitat. Along the Pine, the proposed buffer is 100 feet on the mainstream and 50 feet on the tributaries. For the upper reaches of the Upper Manistee, the recommendation is 75 feet for both the mainstream and tributaries. The plan allows landowners to trim and remove a limited amount of trees and shrubs to allow a good view of the stream.

“There are volumes and volumes of studies that show clear-cutting to the river’s edge will help speed erosion, introduce pollution, and reduce shading of the stream,” Mr. Pearson said. “It’s a bad practice.”

Myth 2: Taking Private Property Rights
The Natural Rivers program leaves private property in private ownership, Mr. Pearson said. Landowners retain their right to develop their land and exclude trespassers. The program only requires landowners to include valuable river protections — such as limited removal of vegetation and setbacks for septic systems — in their construction plans.

“The Natural Rivers Program certainly does not constitute a takings of private property,” he said. “It’s a form of zoning for private property. And zoning of this type has been proven constitutional in the courts for decades.”

Myth 3: Suspension of Local Control
Mr. Pearson emphasized that the DNR has always worked cooperatively with local governments and citizens to develop Natural Rivers plans. In the case of the Pine and Upper Manistee, he said, two citizen advisory groups — one for each river — met regularly for more than three years to discuss guidelines.

He added that his agency requested that each of the watersheds’ 29 townships provide the names and addresses of all property owners along the rivers who would be affected by new restrictions, but only a handful of townships responded. Despite the lack of cooperation, the agency still maintains a mailing list that notifies approximately 2,500 citizens, state lawmakers, and township and county officials about the designation process for the Pine-Upper Manistee and solicits comments.

“There’s a misconception that this is a program run by the DNR, particularly the DNR in Lansing,” Mr. Pearson said. “The Natural Rivers Program is administered either by the local unit of government through a zoning ordinance that they adopt, or by a zoning review board that is appointed by the state and assisted by a state zoning administrator, but is made up of local citizens and one local DNR staffer from the area."

Upon designation, local governments decide whether to blend the protection plan into existing zoning or establish a separate zoning review board consisting of local citizens who administer state zoning rules incorporating the plan’s development standards. Sixty percent of the 1,698 total miles of Michigan waterways now protected by the Natural Rivers Act are managed through local zoning ordinances.

“Outreach to local folks is a top priority,” Pearson said. “We held over 100 public meetings to draft the plan for the Pine and Upper Manistee. Now we need to hold the hearings, write a public comment record, and present this plan to Director K.L. Cool for a final decision.” 

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues and co-author of “Liquid Gold Rush,” a seminal 2001 report on groundwater use in Michigan, manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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