Since we didn’t think we could add much to the great posts previously written by NMCN Contributing Editor Drew YoungDyke, it had not been our intention to comment further on either SB-1276 (Senate Bill Misses the Forest for the Trees) or SB-1238 (Politicizing the Natural Resources Trust Fund). Our inspiration to do otherwise came recently from a press release originating from State Senator John Moolenaar’s office (R-Midland) which appeared in our local newspaper.
This release represented a summary of the Senator’s recent votes, but what caught my eye was the descriptions of the bills which accompanied the release. In the case of SB-1276, it is described as “prohibiting the Department of Natural Resources from designating an area of land specifically for the purpose of achieving biological diversity.”
The description accompanying SB-1238 included the statement, “require more transparency in its property selection process, and ban sales if the seller was harassed, intimidated, or coerced by the DNR, a local unit of government, or a “qualified” conservation organization.”
The problem with both of these descriptive summaries is the suggestion that these practices exist and need to be stopped. While I realize that for generations the best way into the hearts of the northern Michigan electorate has been by getting “tough” with the DNR, to manufacture a charge for the purpose of advancing a caricature of a State agency which now seems unable or unwilling to defend itself seems like an unfair fight. This is actually reminiscent of the Jon Stewart joke about passing a law requiring “leash-walking of unicorns” – in other words, the problem just doesn’t exist.
I offer these comments, primarily regarding SB-1238, from my own professional perspective through my “day job” as a State Certified General Appraiser. Having been directly involved in the purchase, sale or exchange of over 200 State of Michigan-related land transactions over the past 25 years, I can say without hesitation that I have never seen anything close to conduct which would could be described as harassment, intimidation, or coercion – if anything, just the opposite has been the case.
If it were not so sad, the assertion that the DNR or a member of the land conservancy community has pressured or intimidated anyone into a sale, purchase, or donation would be laughable. The irony of this suggestion is that over the years there have been far more DNR critics suggesting that Natural Resources Trust Fund land acquisitions have been at above-market prices, and have also been combined with charges that the State “buys high and sells low.”
I’m sorry, but the critics can’t have it both ways – the DNR cannot be both a “heavy-handed” State agency pressuring the public into coerced transactions while at the same time, overpaying for land. The land transactions to which I refer should in no way be confused with Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) road or highway right-of-way “takings” which in many cases ARE confrontational. However, such public takings actions are limited to the governmental powers of eminent domain.
The one area where the DNR’s relationships with private landowners have sometimes been adversarial has been the issue of boundary encroachment into State lands and in access easement/right-of-way acquisitions. As is the case in most occupations, there will be examples of overzealous employees who treated landowners as being guilty until proven innocent, or viewed the land they were charged with managing as though it were their own. But what was once an institutional problem has largely been addressed through policies which have been advanced by the two most recent DNR Directors, together with legislative encouragement from both sides of the political aisle.
I only raise these points because there will be a fair number of people who will read these misleading bill descriptions and conclude that these practices are ongoing or have historically been conducted. The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth.
Paul Rose – NMCN, Senior Editor