Senate bill seeks to restrict Michigan DNR's ability to manage lands for biodiversity

Sep 27, 2012

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has the authority to set aside land to make sure biodiversity is preserved. Basically, that means the DNR can designate an area to protect the variety of plants and animals that live in that place.

But new legislation seeks to greatly limit that authority.

Senate bill 1276 would prohibit the DNR from setting aside an area of land specifically for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity.  The DNR could not make or enforce a rule to do that.

Senator Tom Casperson is one of the bill’s sponsors. He says the DNR has too much power to set aside land for the purpose of conservation.

"They need to have authority but when it comes to the direction where we’re going as a state with our public lands, I think there needs to be some checks and balances."

Casperson says he gets angry calls from his constituents when they learn, for example, that motorized vehicles are not allowed in certain areas.  He says his bill would put more power in the Legislature’s hands.

"I think they should have to have some oversight within the Legislature, somewhere at least, a check and balance to say okay we agree that’s a good move and let the public weigh in on it through their Legislature.  It seems like they’re reluctant to do that and I understand some of the reason why. It’s not easy to get stuff through the Legislature, but I would also submit that there’s a reason for that."

Casperson’s bill is pretty wide-ranging.  S.B. 1276 would amend several parts of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act in these ways (you can see this bill summary for more details):

  • 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 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.
  • Eliminate the restoration of natural biological diversity from the definition of "conservation."
  • Eliminate a reference to "unusual flora and fauna" in the definition of "natural area."
  • Delete a legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.

In testimony, Professor Emeritus Burt Barnes with the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment calls 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."

Environmental groups are reacting as well.

"You should be paying attention to what the Legislature is doing right now."

Brad Garmon is the director of conservation and emerging issues at the Michigan Environmental Council.

“They’re redefining conservation in a different way than it has been understood for 100 years of Michigan’s conservation legacy, that’s made us a leader in this issue.  That stuff is in jeopardy right now.”

Garmon says the DNR does a good job of managing for all kinds of uses – including timber harvest and off road vehicles... and at the same time protecting the state’s rich animal and plant life.  He also points out that the DNR does ask for public input.

“This bill is one of the worst we’ve seen in a while, in terms of just throwing out the respect for the department and the trained experts in ecology and forestry and others, and pretty much saying we don’t trust them to do a good job anymore and we the politicians are going to tell you how to manage our forests.”

He says this bill is the latest in a string of legislation that’s aiming to change the way land is used and managed in Michigan.