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Speaker’s Assault Prompts Defense of River Law

House to hold hearing on merit of proven conservation tool

September 21, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe
  Conservationists are most concerned about House Bill 4641, which would strip the state’s authority to designate new rivers and manage existing Natural Rivers, like Boardman River in Traverse City.

LANSING — Barely a week after the scenic character of two of northern Michigan’s wild rivers gained formal protection under the state Natural River Act, conservationists are organizing again to protect the law from attack by right wing lawmakers here.

On Wednesday morning, September 24, 2003, the House Conservation and Outdoor Recreation Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on two bills that are intended to change who oversees a land use law that now establishes regional protections for beautiful rivers. If the sponsors of the bill succeed, say conservationists, the 1970 Michigan Natural River Act may no longer provide meaningful safeguards.

The hearing was called by Michigan House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican from LeRoy, who assailed the state Department of Natural Resource’s decision to protect the Pine and Upper Manistee as "a slap in the face to local property owners and completely disregards the opinions of a majority of the local units of government and land owners affected by this decision."

Mr. Johnson’s broadside came on September 15, just three days after DNR Director K.L. Cool formally designated the Pine and Upper Manistee, which flow through the speaker’s district, as the 15th and 16th state Natural Rivers. They were the first such designations since 1988, and came after a decade-long campaign by conservation organizations to revive the Natural Rivers program in Michigan.

Environmentalists Can Never Rest
Advocates who celebrated the DNR’s action on September 12 are now organizing to attend the hearing on Wednesday and defend the Natural River law’s conservation principles. "I’m appalled," said Pine River Association President Dick Shotwell. "I believe Rick Johnson is out of touch on many issues. He’s announced that access to his office costs $10,000. He’s promoted gambling in the Grand Rapids area. He banned school children from visiting the House chambers so they wouldn’t wear out the rug. And he’s failed to listen to the voice of Michigan citizens when it comes to protecting our natural resources."

The focus of Wednesday’s hearing are two proposals sponsored by Republicans from northern Michigan. Conservationists are most concerned about House Bill 4641, introduced by Representative Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord and co-sponsored by Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City. The bill would strip the state’s authority to designate new rivers and manage existing Natural Rivers. Instead, the bill would enable townships and counties to decide whether or not to accept new safeguards.

A Direct Assault
DNR officials said Rep. Bradstreet’s proposal is a direct assault on Michigan’s ability to protect public resources. "This amendment would establish a dangerous precedent of allowing local governments to opt out of state natural resources management," said DNR Director Cool in a June 12, 2003 analysis obtained by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "[The Natural River Act] provides that designation will be done in the interest of the people of the state and future generations and not only for those who own property along designated rivers or within certain local units of government. This bill would create the potential for short-term, inconsistent development standards that would negatively affect the resource."

A second proposal by Rep. Walker, House Bill 4642, would shift the authority to designate new Natural Rivers from the DNR director to the Natural Resources Commission, the seven-member citizen advisory panel that oversees the department. Rep. Walker’s plan attracted the DNR’s support when it was introduced in May because it would restore the original intent of the Natural River Act and further boost public participation in the Natural River planning process, according to DNR staff. The bill also would enable any citizen to nominate a river for designation; require the department to notify all affected landowners; and empower the Natural Resources Commission to modify Natural River management plans.

Both proposals, which have languished in committee, have attracted 15 co-sponsors in the House. Speaker Johnson and Representatives Bradstreet and Walker contend that designating the Pine and Upper Manistee as state Natural Rivers ignored landowner concerns and trampled the authority of local governments to manage their waterways. The lawmakers also claimed that Natural River designation violates individual private property rights and erodes local control of land use decisions.

"Whether or not to designate a river as a Natural River is a decision that impacts many people and many communities," Rep. Walker said. "We need to put in place a consistent and fair process that makes sure the voices of all the interested parties are heard."

"Cooperation with, not contempt for, local governments and property owners needs to be the way these policies are made. That didn’t happen in this case," said Rep. Bradstreet.

Extensive Public Comment Attracted Support
DNR officials and conservation organizations vehemently disagree. Local townships and counties, they say, were invited to participate in the process of developing management plans for the Pine and Upper Manistee. Moreover, say conservationists, the DNR held 12 public hearings around the state in April and May 2003 to solicit citizen opinion of the draft plans to designate the Pine and Upper Manistee.

More than 1,000 people testified personally or submitted written comments. According to the hearing record, the public said adding the Pine and Upper Manistee to the state list of Natural Rivers is an effective way to preserve the two streams’ wild character and environmental quality in perpetuity. They favored protecting the Pine and the Upper Manistee by a margin of three-to-one.

Mr. Shotwell said the Pine River Association is working with Trout Unlimited, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Michigan Land Use Institute and other conservation groups to make sure the public’s strong support for Natural Rivers protections is known to members of the House Conservation committee on Wednesday. Mr. Shotwell said groups are generating letters and phone calls to members of the House committee, and making preparations to fill the hearing room with Natural River supporters — including local officials and people who own land along state Natural Rivers and support the law. The intent is to send a message that the Natural River Act is a proven conservation tool that maintains high quality streams while allowing for local oversight of reasonable development. DNR officials also will testify.

"Natural Rivers is very popular with the people," said Jim Maturen, a former elected commissioner in Osceola County who helped shape the Natural River management plan for the Pine River. "This is bad legislation no matter how you cut it."

A Good Law
Few state laws safeguard the public interest in healthy waterways as effectively as Michigan’s Natural River Act, according to water resource professionals, fishing enthusiasts, and many landowners. Enacted in 1970, the law enables the DNR to work with local governments and citizens to set restrictions on housing and commercial development, brush cutting, and other construction along river banks. The stated goal includes protecting water quality, boating, fishing, wildlife, and scenic values. The program now protects 16 rivers from over development, including the fish filled Rogue River that flows into metropolitan Grand Rapids.

Generally, Natural River designations are the result of a long, deliberate, and inclusive process. For example, before officially designating the Pine and Upper Manistee, the DNR held 101 meetings with local citizens, sponsored numerous public informational forums, and held 12 official hearings over the span of 10 years. The DNR incorporated many of the citizen concerns into the final Natural River plans. For instance, along the Manistee River several property owners felt that the proposed 150-foot setback for new construction along the river’s banks was overly restrictive. The department responded by reducing the distance to 100 feet.

The planning process generated broad public support for permanently protecting the two streams. Governor Jennifer Granholm, Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Chester, DNR Director Cool, the Natural Resources Commission, dozens of state and local citizens groups, and hundreds of Michigan residents supported designation of the Pine and Upper Manistee.

New G.O.P. Strategy: Sound Green, Do the Opposite
Supporters of the Natural River Act said they were surprised by the stridency of Mr. Johnson’s attack last week. They noted that many of the same lawmakers who oppose the Natural River Act also are sponsoring a separate proposal, declaring that the protection of the state’s natural resources is of paramount interest to all citizens. House Joint Resolution K, introduced on August 13, 2003 by Rep. Walker, proposes to amend the state Constitution to make clear that water resources such as wetlands, rivers, and the Great Lakes themselves are held in trust for future generations and should be managed by the state accordingly.

Mr. Walker’s critics, however, noted that Joint Resolution K appears to be part of a national Republican strategy to limit voter concerns about the party’s effort to weaken and not enforce environmental laws. That strategy was outlined last year in a memorandum circulated to party officials by Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and strategist. In his memorandum, which was obtained and made public by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, Mr. Luntz confirmed that the environment is the "single issue" on which Republicans are "most vulnerable."

Mr. Luntz said that Republicans don’t have to change their short-sighted approach to stewardship as long as they disguise what they are doing with a change in rhetoric. He advised Republican lawmakers to sound like conservationists even as they make proposals intended to emasculate conservation programs. "Convince them of your sincerity and concern" for the environment, he counsels, talk about "the benefits of conservation of water, land, and open spaces, " and suggest that "we all want to move towards a healthier, safer future, " and "we all want/deserve clean air/water."

Mr. Luntz’s advice appears to have been embraced by House Speaker Johnson who prefaced his attack on the Natural River Act last week with these words. ""There is not a person in Michigan who doesn't want to protect and preserve the beautiful rivers and streams that criss-cross our state. Especially me, because I've lived by the Pine and Manistee Rivers all my life."

"This apparently is becoming typical of the Republican Party," said Mr. Shotwell of the Pine River Association. "They talk big about protecting clean water and air, and managing sprawl. But when they have an opportunity to act they back down."

Andy Guy, a journalist who covers 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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