Senate Bill Misses the Forest for the Trees

by Drew YoungeDyke – NMCN Contributing Editor

A bill in the Michigan Senate would literally change the definition of conservation and remove biodiversity restoration from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)’s responsibilities. SB 1276, introduced by Sen. Tom Casperson (R – Escanaba), prohibits the DNR from designating land for biological diversity. The bill is designed to eliminate a program called Living Legacies, which was scheduled for implementation in 2013. The Living Legacies program had faced criticism for designating specific Biodiversity Stewardship Areas (BSA) but the DNR had said last winter that it would only be implemented in a manner which ensured no net loss of timber harvest or hunting access on state land.

Biodiversity simply means a variety of natural species in an area; managing for it means creating and maintaining habitat for wildlife and eliminating invasive species like garlic mustard or purple loosestrife as much as it does preserving old-growth forests. It does not mean “non-management,” or “off-limits to humans,” as implied by this bill. This mistaken identity of what managing for biodiversity means, unfortunately, is at the heart of this bill, which passed out of committee to the full senate last week with a few minor changes.

SB 1276 re-defines the “conservation of biological diversity” to eliminate “restoration” of biological diversity. Nature is a complex system, full of interactions which depend on biological diversity. Prohibiting the DNR from restoring biological diversity could hamper existing programs to eradicate invasive plants, which tend to act monolithically in foreign environments in the absence of natural competitors. Further, a healthy and biologically diverse ecosystem brings its own economic values in the form of increased tourism and recreational activity.

It should also be noted, that the DNR already balances economic interests with its conservation duties through the form of timber harvests and mineral rights leasing. However, economic uses should not trump the overall health of the forests, including biodiversity. Teddy Roosevelt, in his 1910 speech on conservation, said, “… there are many people who will go with us in conserving the resources only if they are to be allowed to exploit them for their benefit. That is one of the fundamental reasons why the special interests should be driven out of politics.”

Even when focusing solely on the economic uses of the forest, though, SB 1276 could prove troublesome. The DNR is currently certified by two different sustainable forestry certifications, Forest Stewardship Council(FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). These certifications tell major lumber purchasers and retailers that lumber harvested from DNR-managed forests were sustainably harvested, something that consumers – and therefore retailers and purchasers – are requiring at an increasing rate. Both of these certifications require biodiversity management by program participants.

The SFI requires a written policy for its sustainable forestry objectives, which include, “4. Protection of Biological Diversity: To manage forests in ways that protect and promote biological diversity, including animal and plant species, wildlife habitats, and ecological or natural community types.”

Similarly, the FSC requirements include: “Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and, by so doing, maintain the ecological functions and the integrity of the forest.” Eliminating biodiversity restoration from the DNR’s management objectives could risk Michigan’s forest certifications and shut out Michigan forest products from the markets which require them. A representative from the Michigan Forest Products Council testified in committee that the bill would not endanger certification, but some of the sections of the current law deleted by SB 1276 are the very ones required for certification. Which markets are we talking about? Walk into a Home Depot and look at the two by fours and stud grade material: I’ll bet you find that SFI stamp on them, and that’s just one example.

SB 1276 also deletes a legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity. The history of our state, in particular, serves as a startling example of how human activity can cause a loss of biological diversity. The lack of grayling in Grayling, of pigeon in the Pigeon River, of elk in Elk Rapids, and of virgin white pine from all over northern Michigan and the UP is testament to that. Simply deleting it from the legislative findings does not make it so.

Michigan’s proud legacy of conservation should not be diminished by removing a central tenant of conservation – biological diversity restoration – from the state laws which address it. Aldo Leopold wrote, in A Sand County Almanac, that “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts.” Biodiversity restoration is part of managing for the health of the whole forest, not just a short-term maximum output of board-feet. Michigan should not ignore its forests for the trees.

Click here to read a letter opposing SB 1276 by Prof. Emeritus Burton V. Barnes of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. BiodiversityLetter

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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