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Just Around the Bend

Pine, Upper Manistee will soon be Michigan’s newest Natural Rivers

August 27, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Pat Owen
  Conservationists say that the Michigan Natural River Act is the most effective tool to manage growth, guarantee water quality, and ensure the signature wild rivers, including the Pine, that support northern Michigan’s outdoors-oriented economy.

LANSING — K. L. Cool, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources, is expected early next month to formally designate the Pine and Upper Manistee, two of northern Michigan’s wildest and most beautiful rivers, as the state’s newest Natural Rivers.

The designations, the first by the state since 1988, culminate years of persistent and effective campaigning by a coalition of conservation organizations to more carefully manage new construction while simultaneously ensuring that both rivers will forever be wild, clean, and unspoiled. Mr. Cool is expected to approve conservation-based land use plans for both rivers at the next Natural Resources Commission meeting, which takes place on September 11 and 12 in Munising.

Keith Charters, the chairman of the Natural Resources Commission, the citizen committee that advises the DNR, said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that “formally protecting these two rivers is the right thing to do. I don’t see any resistance on the commission.”

The Pine and Upper Manistee, which flow through hundreds of square miles of northern Michigan forest, have been popular destinations for fishermen, canoeists, and woodsmen for decades. Population growth and development, though, have accelerated in the watershed drained by both rivers, and the water quality, fishery, and scenic character have eroded.

After Reversal, Persistence Prevails
In the early 1990s, the DNR identified the rivers as prime candidates for protection under the 1970 Michigan Natural River Act, which is essentially a regional zoning law that has two specific priorities. The law requires riverfront property owners to carefully plan new residential and commercial development to preserve vegetation along riverbanks that provides wildlife habitat, and prevents erosion and pollution runoff.

The agency’s initial efforts to designate the Upper Manistee and the Pine rivers foundered under the weight of opposition by former Republican Governor John Engler, who joined several landowner groups in arguing the protections intruded on the rights of property owners. That view continues to be held by some landowners and by two prominent Republican lawmakers from northern Michigan who proposed legislation earlier this year to dramatically weaken the law.

Conservationists, though, never stopped pressing the case to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee as Michigan’s 15th and 16th Natural Rivers. Three years ago the Pine River Watershed Coalition, an alliance of conservation and fishing organizations, joined with the Upper Manistee River Association to marshal public support for designation. Their work prompted DNR Director Cool earlier this year to order public hearings on the previously shelved plans to preserve the natural character of the Pine and Upper Manistee. (See Breaking Logjam on Natural Rivers )

The hearings provided the state with clear evidence that a majority of Michigan’s citizens, grassroots organizations, and high-ranking officials supported formal protections and urged the DNR to move quickly to extend Natural Rivers protections to the Pine and Upper Manistee. Supporters include Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, Steve Chester, the head of the state Department of Environmental Quality and an overwhelming number of citizens.

A Planning Law That Protects The Environment
Proponents told the state that Natural Rivers standards were the most effective way to manage growth, guarantee water quality, and maintain the signature natural habitats that support northern Michigan’s outdoors-oriented economy.

DNR staff members reflected those views in the official hearing record, which was presented to the Natural Resources Commission and Mr. Cool on August 8, 2003. The report, which contains background information on the designation process and a synthesis of the public comments, recommended naming the Pine and Upper Manistee as Michigan’s newest Natural Rivers.

“In total, more than 1,000 public comments were received regarding designation of the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers,” the hearing record states. “A total of 723 comments were received in support of designation with 327 comments being opposed.”

“The rivers are currently in outstanding condition,” according to the hearing record. “Based on public input, there is significant support for [Natural Rivers] designation from many affected property owners, Michigan citizens, local and statewide organizations, public agencies, and the governor’s office. Therefore, we believe that future land use along these river stretches and tributaries should be regulated…to protect these water bodies in perpetuity.”

Nearly 70 organizations supported designating the two new Natural Rivers while just three groups — the Michigan Aquaculture Association, the Michigan Farm Bureau, and RIVER, a citizen group formed in direct response to the Natural Rivers proposal — registered formal opposition.

Empty Criticism
Critics of the program offered few specifics in their public and written comments, DNR officials said, though the opposition fell into three broad categories. Those opposed generally asserted that the department is incapable of managing state waterways; that the proposed development standards are too restrictive; and that the designation process failed to include opportunities for citizen input.

The last assertion is directly refuted in the public hearing record. “[DNR] staff conducted 101 meetings with citizen advisory groups and three public informational meetings in a cooperative effort to develop the draft management plans for each river,” the report states. “All meetings were open to the public. Once the draft management plans were completed, two additional public information sessions were held, followed by 12 hearings to take public comments.”

Throughout the process, the DNR received several suggestions to give riverfront property owners a bit more flexibility in managing their holdings, many of which were incorporated into the land use plans that Mr. Cool is expected to approve. Those changes include removing vegetation that clogs certain stretches of the two streams to improve navigation; allowing more flexibility in constructing streamside docks; and reducing the distance that new buildings must be set back from the river’s edge for certain properties along the Upper Manistee.
“Democracy prevailed,” said Keith Charters. “The DNR has made every attempt to bring a host of different stakeholders to the table on this issue. The department also has made some key concessions. Now is the time to wrap this up.”

Will Right Wing Lawmakers Attack?
Property rights advocates, though, may ask their allies in the Legislature to stall the implementation of new safeguards for the two streams. Opponents claim, without any evidence, that applying Natural Rivers standards to streams such as the Pine and Upper Manistee will restrict private property rights, weaken the ability of local officials to make land use decisions, and establish unreasonable building codes.

State Representatives Ken Bradstreet and Howard Walker, two Republicans representing Gaylord and Traverse City respectively, have embraced these arguments. In May the two lawmakers proposed legislation that would, among other things, dramatically weaken the state’s authority to designate and manage Natural Rivers. The legislation was not considered by the House Committee on Conservation and Outdoor Recreation, which was mindful of the broad public support for the law and protecting the two rivers. Rep. Bradstreet, an ardent member of the Legislature’s right wing, may take up the proposal again in the fall, according to a member of his staff.
“We want something that gives local governments more say in the process,” said Craig Ryan, a legislative aide to Rep. Bradstreet.

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues, attended all 12 of the public hearings to designate the Pine and Upper Manistee as Natural Rivers. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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