By Chris Engle, HT Outdoor Columnist
12:04 p.m. EDT, May 4, 2012
As much as I’m aching to share a happy outdoors memory this week, it’s impossible as long as my future outdoor experience is held at gunpoint in the Legislature.
Specifically, there are three proposals in Lansing right now that I’ve got my eye on, but it’s our access to public land — and our ability to expand and protect it — that are staring down the barrel.
Senate Bill (SB) 248 — known as the Land Cap Bill — is currently in the state House. Basically, it aims to cap state land at 4.65 million acres, just more than the 4.4 million the state owns now. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, is a roundabout way of forcing the state to come up with a better land management plan and be strategic with its land acquisitions.
A plan is OK, but in the Pigeon River Country State Forest there is already a strategy focused on acquiring fringe lands, inholdings and tracts with particular recreational value. Buying a smaller tract of private land inside the forest takes precedence over a larger, detached parcel.
An arbitrary land cap is not necessary to put a similar plan in place statewide. Still, SB 248 passed in the Senate last year and is awaiting a vote in the House.
SB 822, also sponsored by Casperson and four others, is taking aim at the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. This account, established in 1976, is funded exclusively through the leasing of state mineral rights and royalties collected from nonrenewable resources. It is a constitutionally-protected fund set aside for buying more state land which, in essence, is also nonrenewable. Those who created the Trust Fund, including Gaylord’s own Dave Smethurst, wanted to be sure a one-time pump of money from the ground wouldn’t be squandered but would rather offer something for future generations.
But if SB 822 gets its way, the fund could be tapped for “infrastructure related to roads in locations where natural resource based industries, including timber harvest or mining, are operating,” according to the bill’s language. By my interpretation, the Trust Fund could be spent to develop timber and mining roads on state land for the benefit of private industry. Coincidentally, before he was a legislator, Casperson ran a log trucking business for 12 years.
Another role of the Trust Fund is to award grants to local units of government for “appropriate development of land for public outdoor recreation.” Examples include development of recreation trails, parks and restroom facilities at those parks, barrier-free access to public beaches and more. Sound familiar, Mr. Casperson? These are examples of some of the eight projects total in your district — $700,000 in acquisitions and $894,000 in developments — that stand to receive funding from the Natural Resources Trust Fund if a current proposal goes through.
That proposal was just sent back to the House by the Senate which, for the first time in the 35-year history of the Trust Fund, removed an entire statewide eco-regional land consolidation project — used to fill in gaps in state land — from the proposal, freeing up $4 million. Projects go through a rigorous application and evaluation process to get on the bill, according to Trust Fund manager Steve DeBrabander, who said there’s talk of the Senate wanting to add a dredging project to the list. Dredging is maintenance, not recreation, and would not meet the Trust Fund’s criteria.
Being that Casperson’s SB 822 also wants to open the Trust Fund to “infrastructure on waterways including breakwaters and dredging operations,” it’s probably safe to say he’s behind the dredging proposal.
“If the Legislature is allowed to remove and add projects that weren’t even applied for, it becomes a pork-barrel fund,” said DeBrabander, noting such action severely undermines the program that is valued by the communities it benefits. Do you enjoy the 62-mile trail between Gaylord and Mackinaw? Thank the Trust Fund.
Finally, a report released last week by the House Natural Gas Subcommittee references that “some of the largest areas of oil and natural gas deposits sit on state-owned lands currently unavailable to extraction.” In that category are Grayling’s Mason Tract along the AuSable River; the Jordan River Valley and its spring-fed headwaters; and the northern two-thirds of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, closed to drilling following a decade-long fight in the 1970s from which the Trust Fund was born.
The recommendation by the Natural Gas Subcommittee is to “effectively force the state to lease all mineral interests not currently leased” and argues “discussions should begin to evaluate drilling and extraction of minerals in currently prohibited areas” like the Pigeon, Jordan and Mason Tract.
I’m not trying to bash gas drilling, but these areas are closed for a reason. They are the most wild, untouched areas of the Lower Peninsula, and the people who closed those areas to drilling sought they be kept that way.
Don’t like what you’re reading? Write your legislator and let them know how you feel. An easier route is to visit the Michigan League of Conservation Voters online at http://www.michiganlcvedfund.org, click “Take Action” and sign their letter to state legislators. Remind them it was the people of Michigan who put these protections in place and that we the people want them to stay in place.
Maybe then I can get back to telling happy stories.
— Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at 732-1111 or email@example.com.