State lawmakers propose changes to how land is preserved in Michigan

Sep 4, 2012

by Peter Payette for The Environment Report

For decades, communities in Michigan have been preserving land with help from the Natural Resources Trust Fund.  The Mackinac Headlands, Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area and William Milliken State Park in Detroit were all purchased with the help of these grants.  But now some state senators want to change the way the system works.  Some of the groups that use the trust fund say the changes are radical. 

For years, Acme Township has been trying to make itself more of a destination.

The community along U.S. 31 just north of Traverse City is mostly a place you pass through.

Township Supervisor Wayne Kladder says until recently Acme had just a boat launch and small beach that wasn’t used much.

“We had people in our township didn’t even know our park was here… and they drove by it every day.”

Back around 2008, the township began buying up adjacent properties along the coast.

But waterfront property on East Grand Traverse Bay isn’t cheap.  So the Township has had help from the Natural Resources Trust Fund: 6 million dollars worth.

Kladder says they’re rebuilding their economy around this land.

“This one here is going to create opportunities for residents and people and visitors and spur growth across the street; make people know where Acme is because they’ll associate the park with Acme.” 

As lovely as the shoreline is here, this sort of project is nothing special for the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Every December a list of projects is recommended that protect the most stunning pieces of land across the Michigan.

But legislation pending in Lansing could make big changes to how it all works.  One proposal would restrict what a community like Acme could do in the future if it wants help from the fund.

It says local governments can’t solicit the landowner.

So if a township wanted to buy a piece of land to make a park, officials couldn’t ask if the owner would be willing to sell. Neither could a land conservancy. Those are non-profits that specialize in this work.

The conservancies are a little perplexed by these proposals.

Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, says the system has been working well.

“If we need to tweak things and improve things, that’s fine, that’s one thing, but to radically change what’s worked so well for decades makes no sense.”

Chown is particularly incensed about another bill that has been drafted but not submitted.

It would take away a conservancy’s tax exemptions if land isn’t opened up for any recreational use including motorized vehicles.

Chown says they’re not opposed to motorized vehicle where they’re appropriate.

“And for the legislature to dictate the types of uses on our conservancy preserves through this bill is ludicrous.”

Glen Chown worries the whole business of land preservation becomes much more political under these bills. 

One would reorganize the trust fund board to be more accountable to elected officials.

And State Senator Tom Casperson says that’s the way it should be. He has drafted some of this legislation.  Casperson is a Republican from Escanaba and he thinks it’s better for elected officials to be in charge rather than department officials.

“People can have their comments about it, but at the end of the day it’s the process we have and it’s a good one because I personally can’t be king for the day, I have to convince the majority of the senators and ultimately a majority of the House members and then hopefully get a governor to go along with me.”

What the current governor thinks will be an interesting question if this legislation makes it to his desk.  Gov. Snyder was formerly on the board of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the state’s largest.