Michigan DNR's ability to manage for biodiversity could be at risk

Mar 7, 2013

The state Senate passed a controversial bill this week.

Senate Bill 78 would prohibit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources from setting aside an area of land specifically to maintain biological diversity. Basically, that means protecting the variety of plants and animals that live in an area.

Senator Tom Casperson sponsored the bill. He has argued that the DNR has too much authority to set aside land.

Here's what the bill would do (excerpted from the Senate Fiscal Agency floor summary):

--Prohibit the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Commission from promulgating or enforcing a rule or an order that designates or classifies an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete the conservation of biological diversity from the DNR's duties regarding forest management, and require the Department to balance its forest management activities with economic values.
-- Eliminate a requirement that the DNR manage forests in a manner that promotes restoration.
-- Provide that a State department or agency would not have to designate or classify an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.
-- Delete a legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.

Critics of the bill say it could tie the DNR’s hands.

Hugh McDiarmid is the communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

“It sends an overall message that we don’t care about biodiversity in Michigan. The worst that will happen is that it’ll open up a whole can of worms – it’ll threaten the integrity of the Endangered Species Act and many of the other tools that our state uses to protect our forests and our lands,” says McDiarmid.

A number of university professors and conservation groups have also been outspoken critics of the bill.

In testimony for a hearing on an earlier version of this bill, Professor Emeritus Burt Barnes with the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment called the bill "lacking in common sense, ecological literacy, and vision; it is divisive, counterproductive, mean-spirited; couldn't be worse." Here's an excerpt from his letter:

"All individuals and organizations that focus on natural resources necessarily must consider the organisms occupying the lands for which they are responsible. Therefore, it is impossible to legislate biodiversity or its restoration out of the mission of any organization trying to address and solve human-caused problems of the world."

But the Michigan United Conservation Clubs is in favor of SB 78.

Kent Wood is the legislative affairs manager for MUCC.

He says biodiversity is critical for the health of our forests. But he says his group had problems with a proposed DNR program that would have designated special areas in the state to preserve biodiversity. They were worried about losing access to state game areas for hunting.

“We were comfortable with the bill because we don’t feel it gets rid of biodiversity nor does it get rid of the Department of Natural Resources’ ability to manage for biological diversity. We felt it sort of just… it got rid of one of the tools or one of the programs they had been using that we were not really supportive of,” he says.

That’s MUCC’s understanding of the bill. But Wood says the bill is so broadly written that it is open for interpretation.