by Paul Rose, NMCN Sr. Editor
I know what you’re thinking. For a website that has spent much of its time and identity highlighting legislative efforts to divert and alter the constitutionally-protected use of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF), proposing any change to its current use and funding allocation may be seen as Michigan conservation heresy.
I understand such criticism. I get it, and when you’re done with me I may begin bludgeoning myself. Having said that, proposing to include fisheries and wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement projects as being among those uses eligible for qualified grant application is entirely consistent with the original concept behind the MNRTF. That is, using public royalty revenue from non-renewable resources (oil, gas and minerals) to fund public recreation and public lands projects which ARE renewable.
Obviously, in a perfect world, creating a new trust fund with revenue from the soon-to-be-capped Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund would be a better alternative. However, one does not have to spend a significant amount of time perusing state and national media outlets today to realize that “perfect” is not the nature of the world within which we currently reside.Despite the concerns a proposal of this type will likely generate from the strict constitutional defenders of the MNRTF, it does not change the reality which is now before us; that the public and political appetite for public land acquisitions, at least at past levels, continues to wain. Recall last year’s contentious debate involving SB-248 (Land Cap Bill) which, although modified, was ultimately signed into law. One of its provisions does require the development of a strategic plan relating to future State land acquisitions.
Based upon the Governor’s message on natural resources and the environment from last November, any new strategic land plan will likely include a component which requires that approval from the affected local unit of government be secured in advance of future acquisitions. Should these new policies and procedures result in fewer land acquisition projects, alternative uses for the fund will continue to emerge.
Expanding allowable uses of Trust Fund monies to include habitat improvement/enhancement projects would be especially timely. For non-profit NGO’s such as CRA (Conservation Resource Alliance) in northwest Michigan and Huron Pines in northeast Michigan, as well as other watershed groups, state funding sources have all but entirely disappeared. Based upon the mood and fiscal realities in Washington, project funding from federal sources are likely headed for near elimination. It is for these reasons that Michigan needs its own sources of project funding which, together with private funding matches, would provide new life and a new generation of Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund supporters. This slightly broader approach to the use of natural resource trust funds is similar to that used by other states including Colorado with its GOCO Fund (Great Outdoors Colorado).
Allowing even just 10% of the MNRTF annual spending to be issued as grants for fisheries and wildlife habitat improvement/enhancement projects, perhaps together with invasive species management efforts, would appear to be a natural extension of the fund’s purpose. In addition to benefitting our lands, waters and wildlife, these projects represent a reinvestment into Michigan’s economy not only through tourism, but through the jobs and volunteer contributions that these “on the ground” projects help create. Project funding of this type would also appear to be more broadly beneficial than would be the near tripling of allowable Trust Fund spending for local public recreational projects, especially at a time when many local governmental units are struggling to secure the necessary project funding matches.
This proposal is in no way suggesting that the long term role of public land acquisition should be diminished, nor should it be viewed as pitting one end of conservation community against another. If, however, we can protect the MNRTF for the long term while preserving its broader intended use, then the legacy of the Fund will be strengthened.
If we as a conservationists do not advance strategic and compatible ideas to supplement current spending allocations and allowable project uses, it will afford an opportunity for the Fund’s detractors to suggest that it is no longer relevant to the people of this State – in which case, those alternative uses will be provided for us.