Big changes afoot for state outdoors fund?

Southern Michigan cities struggling to operate parks and recreational facilities may soon receive a windfall from an unlikely source: the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

The fund was established in 1976 to buy land for natural resource protection and public outdoor recreation. Funding comes from royalties paid by companies that drill for oil and gas on state land.

The widely heralded fund has provided $959 million in grants over the past 36 years. Those grants have been used to: acquire miles of waterfront property along rivers and lakes; purchase huge tracts of forestland; increase public access to lakes, rivers and forests; and build scores of boat launches, parks, ball fields and other outdoor recreation facilities. But a confluence of recent events has trust fund managers shifting their focus away from buying property in Northern Michigan — where the state owns a disproportionate amount of land — to acquiring land and funding more recreation projects in the southern Lower Peninsula, particularly in urban areas.

Less money for Trust Fund grants, the state’s new cap on how much land the Department of Natural Resources can own and the lack of green space in cities are driving the changes.

Fund leaders eye southward shift

"I think it’s possible we could see new state parks in cities," said Bill Rustem, a senior adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder. Rustem, who worked for Gov. William Milliken in the 1970s, helped create the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

"If you look at the availability of public land, most of it is in Northern Michigan," Rustem said. "We have not done a good enough job of creating public spaces and access to natural resources in our cities, and it’s our cities that will determine the future of Michigan."

Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said state officials intent on shifting the Trust Fund’s focus to Southern Michigan should tread cautiously.

"Putting an emphasis on grants to urban centers is a good idea as long as you don’t shut the door to the rest of the state," McDonough said.

McDonough and other conservation leaders said there are still areas of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula that need more public land and better outdoor recreation facilities. Republican lawmakers want the state to stop buying land in the U.P.

Bob Garner, who heads the Trust Fund Board of Directors, said the fund could help bring nature to city dwellers who might never travel to Northern Michigan.

"I think we’ll make it easier for cities to buy land, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t buy more land up north," Garner said.

Oil and gas propel natural fund

The Natural Resources Trust Fund was the nation’s first program to use oil and gas royalties to purchase land and develop new outdoor recreation facilities. It remains the largest program of its kind in the United States.

The predecessor to the Natural Resources Trust Fund was established in response to a 1970s controversy over the oil industry’s bid to drill for oil and gas under the Pigeon River State Forest, northeast of Gaylord. It was originally established to acquire land for hunting and fishing, but has since been expanded to support numerous outdoor activities.

Voters in 1984 made the Trust Fund part of the Michigan Constitution, a move that removed the temptation to divert its funds to other state activities.

Map of grants issued by county

Several other states — including Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee — have recently established trust funds. But none of those programs come close to Michigan in terms of funding or achievements.

Among its 1,957 grants, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has acquired: 70 miles of river frontage and more than 25,000 acres along the Au Sable and Manistee rivers; several miles of frontage along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior; 10,000 acres of undeveloped land in Mackinac County; an easement that ensured public access to 248,000 acres of forestland in the Upper Peninsula; and thousands of miles of recreational trails.

For much of its history, the Trust Fund was focused on buying land in Northern Michigan and the U.P. But three recent developments have shifted the focus to urban areas in southern Michigan. Consider:

* After years of criticism that too many Trust Fund grants were awarded to communities in Northern Michigan, the fund’s board of directors in 2009 prioritized grants in urban areas, near population centers.

* The Trust Fund last year reached its revenue cap of $500 million. So, all new oil and gas royalties go into the Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund. From now on, Trust Fund managers can only spend interest earned on the fund’s $500 million corpus. That will reduce the amount available annually for grants from roughly $35 million to about $25 million, said Steve DeBrabander, a state Department of Natural Resources worker who oversees the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

* Earlier this year, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder passed a law that capped the amount of land the DNR may own at 4.626 million acres. That law, which effectively prohibits the DNR from buying large chunks of land north of Clare unless it sells other parcels, could force the department to use Trust Fund grants to only buy land in Southern Michigan, according to several state officials.

"Historically the Trust Fund supported projects in the northern Lower Peninsula and the U.P.," DeBrabander said. "The Trust Fund board made urban projects a priority (in 2009); it’s an attempt to make sure public outdoor recreation opportunities are being provided in urban areas."

This year, the three largest Trust Fund grants went to communities in Southern Michigan: $3.7 million for recreational trails in Oakland County; $3 million to acquire 400 acres of land on Harsens Island, in the St. Clair River; and $3 million to purchase 2,000 acres of land in Jackson and Washtenaw counties for a new recreation area, the River Raisin Recreation Area.

Only one project in Northern Michigan received more than $1 million from the Trust Fund this year: Leelanau County’s Leland Township received a $2.9 million grant to buy 104 acres of waterfront property along Lake Michigan. The site will become the Clay Cliffs Natural Area.

Fund coveted for other purposes

Some state lawmakers believe the Natural Resources Trust Fund should evolve further, by helping to finance roads, airports and other purposes.

State Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville, introduced legislation last year to use 80 percent of Trust Fund revenue to fix roads and upgrade airports. His bill died in committee.

Rustem, the governor’s adviser, said the Trust Fund is protected by the constitution, so any attempts to raid the fund would prompt a legal challenge.

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said the DNR should use the Trust Fund to maintain crumbling marinas and build more roads that provide public access to state lands. Casperson, who authored the state’s new land cap, said it’s senseless for the Trust Fund or the DNR to buy more land when the state is struggling to properly maintain its current land holdings.

And Sen. Bruce Caswell, R-Hillsdale, introduced legislation in September that would divert Trust Fund revenue into the state transportation fund, where it could be used to fix roads.

Conservation leaders fear the state’s new land cap could fuel attempts to raid the Trust Fund.

"If the Trust Fund can't purchase land, then it becomes susceptible to being diverted to other uses," said Drew YoungeDyke, policy and communications specialist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. "It would take a lot to do it, but that doesn't mean the Legislature wouldn't try – that's why we had to put (the Trust Fund) in the Constitution in the first place."

There is also a battle over control of Trust Fund expenditures.

Last summer, state lawmakers took the unprecedented step of removing large land acquisition grants from the list of Trust Fund grants. Lawmakers objected to the DNR receiving millions of dollars for land acquisitions when DNR officials didn’t specify which parcels they wanted to acquire.

That spat prompted state Sen. Darwin Booher, R-Cadillac, to introduce legislation that would give the Legislature more control over Trust Fund grants.

Garner, the Trust Fund chairman who wrote the legislation that created the first Trust Fund in the 1970s, said he doesn’t understand why lawmakers want to change a program that has bolstered Michigan’s recreational economy and earned widespread praise in the process.

"This has been a darned good program," he said.

Garner said limiting Trust Fund board members to eight years of service would hurt the grant program and the communities it serves.

"Terms limits didn’t serve us well with the Legislature," Garner said. "I can’t see how they would serve us well with the Trust Fund."

Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.

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Thu, 10/25/2012 - 10:19am
I think it's indicative that legislation limiting the purchasing ability of the fund, as well as attempts to raid money from it for purposes often contrary to the fund's original intent, has come from Republicans. Unfortunately, that political tilt has for decades become more and more hostile not only to the environment but also to nature itself. This is one state so blessed by nature that you'd think our lawmakers could stop thinking of money long enough to ensure that generations to come will be able to enjoy as much of the real Michigan as possible.
Kevin Ricco
Thu, 10/25/2012 - 10:37am
So let me get this straight. If the Trust Fund is no longer able to purchase land for the State, then it needs to be diverted to other uses? That makes no sense. What about improvement projects to existing state and local parks? What about acquiring lands for local parks? I have an idea. How about the Trust Fund Board increase the cap on park development projects? Several years ago they decreased the cap on development projects from $500,000 to $300,000. Anyone that works with large scale construction/development projects can tell you that a $300,000 project doesn't get you very far. Reducing the cap on development projects has meant that communities that may have been able to complete a park renovation project with one grant now need to accomplish this task with two grants. The DNR Trust Fund program has been a fantastic resource for the state of Michigan. It has provided recreational opportunities to millions of residents and visitors since its inception. In my county alone we have used this program to build and refurbish no less than five county parks. We would not have been able to accomplish this feat without the Trust Fund. There is a reason it was decided by the VOTERS to put this program into the state constitution. Leave it there and leave it alone!
Mike Holton
Thu, 10/25/2012 - 2:55pm
As much as I do not like adding things to the state constitution, I can see why 6 proposals are on the ballot. We have a perfectly good program that is working and now legislators wish to change the will of the Michigan voters. I think park space close to or in urban centers is a great idea.
Thu, 10/25/2012 - 3:19pm
i cannot figure out why the eternal quest for government-owned land is considered a GOOD thing: Michigan has recently closed many of their State Forest campgrounds as they say they cannot afford to maintain them.They also do a very poor job of advertising their existence as these campgrounds would bring in a large number of young hikers and campers from out-of-state. The June 13, 2012 meeting of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board of Trustees heard the summary of a recreation needs survey of over 3000 state residents who showed "More than three-quarters are satisfied or very satisfied with amount and quality of outdoor recreation in Michigan.". So-the Trust Fund's own surveys show that additional land is NOT a need as perceived by the taxpayers. Yet the Central Planners in our major university cities continue their efforts to take valuable lands out of the local tax base to develop huge swaths of State-owned land green-belting the Southeastern Michigan metro areas . . without any input from the areas actually being impacted. The United States became a world power based in large part on its allowance of individual ownership of land. Agenda 21 does everything it can to restrict those property rights-and led to the Michigan House placing a bill into committee aimed at prohibiting any implementation of Agenda 21-connected activities within the state.Meanwhile, the DNR and their friends in the environmental movement work to remove public access from existing state-owned lands. It doesnt take much to connect the dots...The State needs to bring any new acquisitions of lands to a screeching halt and start taking care of the land they already control. This is where the Trust Fund monies should be going-NOT to city skate parks for wealthy communities. If they want a skate park, they can build it. If they need to restore a historical park area and actually cannot afford to do so, then that might be a good application of the funds. Otherwise, tend the garden you already control and stop the empire-building!