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Guest column: Pure Michigan’s natural assets are under assault

By Chris Bunch/ Six Rivers Regional Land Conservancy

The Michigan Legislature is taking aim at land conservancies, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, the Department of Natural Resources and land conservation in general. The land conservancies in Southeast Michigan, along with the rest of the natural resource conservation community here, are surprised, frustrated and dismayed. 

Legislation is waiting to be introduced requiring private, nonprofit conservancies to allow motorized vehicles, including ORVs, ATVs and snowmobiles, to operate on their privately owned and managed preserves. If conservancies choose not to, they will lose property tax exemptions on those properties.

Legislation has also been introduced to prevent land conservancies from participating in MNRTF projects and to insert political influence into that process. This will greatly reduce conservancies’ ability to serve as effective partners for local governments needing help to complete projects in their communities.

Earlier, the Legislature stalled the appropriation for MNRTF grants that fund land acquisitions and improvements for local communities and the state. Lawmakers intruded directly into the process, refusing to appropriate funds for projects under way within the DNR, largely directed at consolidating public land. The MNRTF is constitutionally established, using revenue from state oil and gas production rather than tax dollars. It’s intended to ensure revenue derived from non-renewable resources isn’t squandered on short term political objectives. Instead, it is reinvested in securing natural resources that support quality of life and benefit citizens for generations to come. 

This summer, a law limiting the amount of land the state can acquire for conservation and recreation was adopted. This is directly contrary to numerous initiatives of local government and conservancies that include the state as a partner. These efforts protect natural and scenic resources that sustain property values and economic attractiveness of communities, and provide recreation near the state’s population base. 

Land conservancies are private, nonprofit groups made of supporters sharing a sense of responsibility to protect natural resources that maintain quality of life. Supporters invest so conservancies can work with landowners who choose to exercise their property rights by keeping land in its natural or agricultural state. Conservancies hold conservation easements, restricting development while allowing land to remain in private ownership. They also accept land to be managed as preserves. Conservancies have nonprofit status and receive property tax exemptions because they provide public benefits.  They ensure critical natural, agricultural and community lands are protected from conversion and degradation, and provide places for study and recreation.

Forcing conservancies to allow vehicular traffic that damages and destroys resources they are protecting is nonsensical. It flies directly in the face of their mission. It is government intrusion into the exercise of private property rights of both conservancies and the donors that give preserves. It has major ramifications for conservancies’ federal nonprofit status. Allowing vehicular traffic, they ignore their conservation mission and put their non-profit status at risk.  If they don’t, they incur property tax burdens that will at best cripple their capacity, at worst bankrupt them. 

The land cap legislation places an arbitrary ceiling on publicly owned property. It is a short-sighted measure, ignoring history at the same time responding to a decades-old argument.  The debate has been ongoing since the time when the overwhelming majority of land in question became public through tax reversion, years ago. Continuing cries that land should be returned to private ownership ignore that history, economic realities, the real estate market, and continued tax foreclosures.  Similarly, statements that “the state can’t manage what it has” disregard continued erosion of general fund support for the DNR and beg questions of the meaning of “manage.” 

Particularly puzzling is that these initiatives emanate from Northern Michigan. Yet, contrary to all of the work going on in their districts to protect and provide greater access to land to maintain an inviting region that attracts and builds economic capacity, Southern Michigan legislators have signed on. Apparently Pure Michigan is to be parceled off and sold.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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