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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Anne Bickle
Thu, 09/20/2012 - 11:50am
OK, guys. Use your journalistic muscle power to ask the legislators directly why they are doing what they are doing. This is ridiculous. Toss in the "no bias against Christians" "law" targeted at public universities and a few other decisions by B.S. (our attorney general) and we have a state where lawmakers are intervening in everything. You lawmakers need to be hands off. Quit using my tax dollars for pushing your extremely conservative agenda. It wouldn't be as bad if there were some well-thought-out reasons for what you have been doing, but you don't even have that to show when you push your agendas. I always felt term limits were ineffective. Not now. Let's get rid of these legislators.
Thu, 09/20/2012 - 5:31pm
I am trying to figure out whether a 'guest columnist' is invited by Bridge to inform or to sway the readers. "The Michigan Legislature is taking aim at land conservancies," This suggests that Mr.Bunch believes land conservation is above accountablity to the State Legislature. "using revenue from state oil and gas production rather than tax dollars." Mr. Bunch seems to feel that moneys collected by the State the aren't a sales tax, an income tax is not moneys that should be held accountable by the duly elected representatives of the Michigan citizens. My experience has been that when people feel they and the money they spend (especially when it is collected in the name of the citizens) should not be held accountable by those collecting and distributing that money that those moneys are much more likely to be spent in a way that is not as effective/beneficial for the citizents nor is it likely to be spent as efficeintly as the citizens should deserve. Mr. Bunch seems to conveneintly ignore that some of the lands placed in consevancy are available due to the tax laws and the impact that has on the State and local community. Rather than address the whole of the issue of financial impact he seems to see only a single concern and rest simply don;t matter. "Land conservancies are private, nonprofit groups made of supporters sharing a sense of responsibility to protect natural resources that maintain quality of life." Mr. Bunch seems to feel that when land is place in conservance it now is exempt from the whole of state social economic system and accountability. He seems to feel that since the good intentions of conservancy it places the land outside of any concerns on the State and local communities. "Forcing conservancies to allow vehicular traffic that damages and destroys resources they are protecting is nonsensical." Mr Bunch seems to suggest that the vehicle would be running over all the land in the conservancy rather then there be panned access. Rather than do an assessment for what lands are the most fragile and what land would be least impact, what types of access would be viable within the idea of protecting the resources he simply wants the land to be in accessible in total, while no mentioning what impact removing that land from access impacts the local communities. It seems Mr. Bunch has no interest in considering people outside of his sphere of land conservancy. "The land cap legislation places an arbitrary ceiling on publicly owned property." I hadn;t realized it but without a cap the land conservancy process could own all of the State of Michigan. I wonder what Mr. Bunch would do with land in Detroit. I have to admit, until this article I had thought this was simply some Lansing politics. After reading what Mr. Bunch has written, and as much as I land conservancy made sense to me, I now have a real concern that there should be more specific oversight of the those lands. This article suggests to me that the whole process of acquistion, management, and long-term disposition of the lands need to be describe and a discipline oversight process be intiated. It seems that the those in the land conservancy are the only agencies in the State that do not have oversight. Is this article reporting or an editorial view? i gain less information and now have more questions.
John Q,
Thu, 09/20/2012 - 11:30pm
You don't seem to understand that land conservancies are private organizations that own or protect private property. Apparently, some state legislators think they know better than the conservancies on how to manage those lands.
Derek Melot
Fri, 09/21/2012 - 8:12am
Duane, Bridge accepts submissions for guest column review from all interested parties. We cannot publish every submission, but our goal is to allow citizen commentary that reflects the wide diversity of opinion found in our state. Guest columns reflect the views of the author only. In newspaper-speak, our guest columns are the equivalent of op-ed columns. Thanks for your question.
Sat, 09/22/2012 - 12:19am
Derek, "We cannot publish every submission, but our goal is to allow citizen commentary that reflects the wide diversity of opinion found in our state. Guest columns reflect the views of the author only." "Guest columns reflect the views of the author only." If the selection commitee only publishes one veiw on a topic and calls that diveristy it makes me wonder how I learned a very different version of diversity. I have been taught that if you want people to make an informed choice/decision on and issue that you want to offer them either different perspectives on the same issue or offer a wide range of question they may want to investigate. I am hard pressed to see how Mr. Bunch was helping to create and informed audience. It is the Bridge and it is your decision on what the Bridge offers to the readers. Could you direct me to where I might read the Purpose, the Charter, the Mission of the Bridge so I better understand what the Bridge is trying to achieve?
Laurel Gress
Sat, 09/29/2012 - 8:28pm
You sound like one of those characters who wants to pave over the state of Michigan. You must be a Republican.
Thu, 09/20/2012 - 6:17pm
First of all, a guest columnist can say whatever he pleases. It's a guest column, for pete's sake: It's not supposed to be reporting. I've been following the same issues Chris Bunch is discussing, and I've got to say that the depredations of this crazy legislature on what's left of natural Michigan (which has a strong and salutary effect on the quality of life here) is what finally made up my mind to get the hell out of this benighted state as soon after retirement as possible. Assuming the dorks in the increasingly fringe-hugging legislature reflect the opinions of their constituency, I'll be pleased to leave that constituency entirely.
Sat, 09/22/2012 - 12:28am
BC, In all my years I have seldom found the legilative process or the legislators as a whole to have other than a messy process (it bring to mind the old reference to watching sausage being made). "It’s a guest column, for pete’s sake: It’s not supposed to be reporting." Does that mean we should not comment on it, giving them a free pass? That sounds a lot like not wanting to think about what is said and simply accepting it. "Assuming the dorks in the increasingly fringe-hugging legislature reflect the opinions of their constituency..." I would offer to some each of us is a 'fringe' on some topic. As I said I thought land conservancy was a good idea until I read Mr. Bunch and how he felt their efforts should be above public scrutiny.
still love Michigan
Mon, 09/24/2012 - 10:03am
Duane, I'm wondering whose payroll you're on. The facts speak for themselves. The logical outcome of more this kind of legislation is No Pure Michigan and the loss of residents who live here because of it and of tourists who travel here because of it. Plain and simple. You are very articulate, but slick rhetoric does not equal good information.
Mon, 09/24/2012 - 11:26am
Where is Gov. Snyder's "relentless positive action" in all of this effort to push a right wing agenda out of the thinly populated UP onto everyone else? None of this makes any sense, and is a power grab to force what? Destruction of private property? I hope that the Gov. wakes up and realizes that using these types of issues as "bargaining chips" (along with women's rights and bodies) with a bunch of extremists is not a winning strategy for our state.