In reviewing one of the more recent legislative proposals involving natural resource management and all that is the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, we noticed that Senate Bill No. 1280, introduced on September 19, 2012 by Senators Casperson and Booher, contained one sentence which has the potential for a wide range of interpretations.
The key provision contained in the bill is being described as providing for term limits for members of the Natural Resources Commission. In spite of the not-so-subtle jab being taken at certain former Commissioners, the proposal itself is a reasonable idea. What was troubling appeared on Page 4 which proposes to amend Section 503 of PA 451, more commonly known as the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
Section 503.(1) currently states that “The department (DNR) shall protect and conserve the natural resources of this state;”
What’s been inserted between that statement and the other commonly recognized charges for the department were these words: “while maximizing natural resource based economic activity and recreational opportunities on land owned or controlled by the department.”
Okay, so what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t the DNR already be trying to maximize these things? Well, yes they should. If asked, we suspect that most within the DNR, both past and present, feel that they have historically managed in an attempt to balance economic and social considerations with those of their legislative directive, which is to protect and conserve.
Presumably, those who disagree with this self-assessment feel that the DNR is not doing enough to advance the economic side of the equation. Were it not for the collective body of legislative work which we’ve already seen from some of these same authors in recent years, we may not be as concerned as we are about the suggested “tweak” to the legally mandated mission of the department.
The risks and potential pitfalls associated with language that places maximizing economic gain at or above resource protection can be seen when we recall that it many ways we are still recovering from a time early in the past century when that WAS management policy. Ask anyone around the state involved in river and watershed restoration and they will tell you that we still bear the scars of those priorities.
The first question which arises, is “What does maximizing natural resource based economic activity mean?” Does it mean that commercial timber value will now trump wildlife habitat management to the extent which it is allowed under Forest Certification? Does this mean that the State may be required to sell when a private property owner seeks to acquire public land for the expansion of a golf course similar to what was proposed in 2009? Does this mean that areas previously closed to mineral extraction for land use and environmental reasons will now be opened? Does this mean that all State land should now be open to all recreational activities? You get the idea.
This leads us to the next question; who will be the ones making these judgements about economic benefit versus diverse and sustainable resource management?
This question would be far less troubling were it not for the fact that we now find ourselves in a time when the public oversight authority of Michigan natural resource management is the weakest it has been in decades. While we remain confident in the conservation values possessed by our current Governor and his staff, the reality is that governors now hire the Director of the DNR (no longer the Natural Resources Commission) and governors appoint the members of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) making the current system largely driven by shifting political currents.
Additionally, the NRC now finds itself in the far more reduced role of essentially being a fish and game commission, as compared to its former regulatory authority over such matters as environmental permitting, land and mineral management. Given this ever-increasing presence of politics in resource management, this seemingly minor change in language contained in the bill should give everyone who has an interest in such issues, pause.
If the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ mission statement is going to be redefined, shouldn’t there be a full and open discussion which includes the citizenry of the State and stakeholder organizations and not have it solely appear in the back of what may have been considered a largely inconsequential piece of legislation?
In spite of the legislative assertions, we would still contend that those charged with the management of our state’s natural resources have done a good job of having it “both ways” and have demonstrated that resources can be managed in ways which are both sustainable and economically productive. This contention is supported by the fact that Michigan now enjoys an $18+ billion tourism economy and ranks 8th in population but sells the 3rd most hunting licenses and the 5th most fishing licenses. Michigan also enjoys a State Park system which is consistently recognized as being among the nation’s best.
With that backdrop, this language would appear to be a solution looking for a problem.