Politicizing the Natural Resources Trust Fund

August 16, 2012

Conservation Policy, Legislation

by Drew YoungeDyke, NMCN Contributing Editor

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund was put into the Michigan Constitution in 1984 and placed under the leadership of an advisory board to keep it away from politicians. Senate Bill 1238 would give it back.

The bill packs the nonpartisan Natural Resources Trust Fund Advisory Board with two additional members. They’re not just any two appointees, though: They must be selected from a list jointly recommended by the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House. It further imposes a term limit of two four-year terms.

This bill must be considered in light of other recent attacks on the Trust Fund. In the annual Trust Fund appropriations bill, HB 5364, the Senate stripped $4 million for four regional projects designed to allow the DNR to acquire priority lands that become available. The House had previously passed the bill with all recommended projects intact, and rejected the Senate’s cuts. (Remember that the Trust Fund is composed of dedicated, regulated, Constitutionally-protected funds which can only be spent on recreational public lands).

The bill then went into a conference committee for resolution, and the conference reinstated two of the projects for southern Michigan and removed the two projects for northern Michigan lands. The only northern Michigan legislator in that committee was Sen. Darwin Booher (R – Evart), who is sponsoring SB 1238 to pack the Advisory Board.

SB 1238 further seeks to exert legislative influence over the Advisory Board by dictating and restricting what projects it may or may not recommend. In the current law, only trails which intersect downtown areas are given preference. SB 1238 expands this mandate to projects and acquisitions which allow motorized access, are located within counties that have less than 50% public land, and those in which the local government has adopted a supportive resolution.

While not all bad ideas, giving preference to projects which allow motorized access necessarily limits the funds available for non-motorized uses like hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with having some motorized trails, but the Advisory Board shouldn’t be required to give motorized uses preference over non-motorized uses. Furthermore, the forthcoming DNR Land Acquisition Plan required by the substitute version of the Land Cap Bill – signed by Gov. Snyder in July – will detail priorities for land acquisition which do not need to be duplicated or contradicted in an Advisory Board mandate. The DNR plan will already require legislative approval, despite the objections of conservationists.

Finally, SB 1238 expressly prohibits the Advisory Board from recommending acquisition of land solicited for sale by the DNR, a local government unit or a land conservancy, or land to be transferred to a land conservancy which is not open to all recreation uses (i.e. motorized uses). It also prohibits the board from attaching a name to a project, they may only use a legal description. Whatever the purpose of this last provision, its effect will be to make it harder for Michigan citizens to keep informed about what projects are proposed, which will make it easier for projects to be stripped by the Legislature without public protest.

While just the latest in series of recent bills which undermined public land acquisition and the Trust Fund, this one tries to expressly circumvent the barrier the citizens placed between the Legislature and the Trust Fund when they put it into the Michigan Constitution in 1984. In addition to the poor public policy it contains by politicizing the Trust Fund process, it seems remarkably bad politics to introduce a bill packing the Advisory Board with appointees recommended by the Speaker of the House in the midst of a scandal where the current Speaker of the House tried to rig an election by packing the ballot.

Whatever your politics, we should all agree that the Trust Fund is too important to leave to the political shenanigans recently exhibited by our Legislature. After all, that’s why we took it away from them in the first place.

About Northern Michigan Conservation Network

The mission of the Northern Michigan Conservation Network is to "connect conservation-minded hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts to those issues affecting Michigan's forests, waters, and wildlife."

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