In what is the latest effort to conduct a legislative flogging of a caricature of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources which does not exist, SB-0078 prohibits the Director of the DNR or the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) from designating or classifying an area of land specifically for the purpose of “achieving or maintaining biological diversity.” This type of bill is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s SB-1238 which included the statement to “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.” These practices were being alleged by legislators despite the fact that there was not even anecdotal evidence of their existence.
Although I agree with many of the public policy concerns which have been raised by Brad Garmon and others concerning this bill, based upon my discussions with state land resource managers, its passage is likely to have little affect on their ability to manage these lands in a sustainable manner, or in ways which are ecologically sound.
However well intended, the process which began in 2005 and led to the creation of the Living Legacies initiative was likely doomed from the outset. On the surface, the idea of connecting a “network of representative natural communities (functioning ecosystems) on a portion of DNR administered lands across the state” seems harmless enough. Such a perspective, however, does require that you trust those doing the networking and that these connections don’t require crossover between public and private ownerships or political jurisdictions. Just because bio-communities don’t read plat books doesn’t mean human communities don’t either.
Okay, so here’s the recipe for the program’s demise: Start with one cup of eco-complexity. To that, add two tablespoons each of anti-government backlash and double-dip economic recession. Stir until all are fully agitated and you are now ready for legislative baking at 350 degrees. Voila! You get SB-78!
The primary source of my concern about this bill and its legislative companions relates to a statement included in the op-ed response to Brad Garmon by Senator Casperson (lead sponsor of SB-78), also appearing in the Detroit Free Press. Senator Casperson characterizes those in opposition to his bill this way: “They do not want the Legislature to use its constitutional authority over natural resources to ensure that real conservation is achieved while allowing use of the resources for recreation, tourism and economic activity.”
This concept of legislative micro-management of the DNR activities is an issue which should give pause to both sides of this debate. Although no one is questioning the state legislature’s constitutional authority over natural resource management, many ARE questioning the appropriateness of such an agenda. Just because the legislature has the constitutional authority to make bad decisions, doesn’t make it good public policy to do so.
The bigger question is this; do we really want to create a natural resource management process that can be fundamentally altered every time there is a change in the political winds? Even if you are a supporter of SB-78 you should recognize the risks of having this, or any future state legislature, weighing in on issues that could subsequently be reversed in a manner which is far worse than the perceived problem – especially, as in this case, where no problem actually exists.
Should we not be entrusting publicly-engaged, natural resource professionals to manage these resources for future generations and not within the time-line of political term limits? If we as citizens of this state choose to take exception to resource management policies adopted by agency employees, there are sufficient opportunities for doing so. Each of these options run well short of needing a new piece of legislation. The Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is hired by the Governor. Members of the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) are appointed by the Governor and are subject to approval by the State Senate. Lastly, the Chair of the NRC is also appointed by the Governor. This is not a system which is exempt from elected-official oversight.
It was because of the existing process of public engagement, stakeholder input and recommendations from resource professionals that the “worst-feared” elements of the original Biodiversity Stewardship Area initiative never came to fruition. It was not due to the emergence of this legislation.