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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

With record interest in state parks, let’s take steps to protect them

This is an election year, so the rhetoric will be ultra- hot and sadly contentious. Why not try to fix on subjects that draw all sides together to benefit our people?

A good choice is to focus on what makes Michigan such a distinctive state: Our unparalleled natural resources, ranging from our unpolluted lakes and streams, to our magnificent towering forests, our beaches and swamps – all sustaining our legions of wildlife, whether glorious eagles or dazzling brook trout.

Natural resources in America are largely protected for public use and enjoyment through our national and state system of parks, often called “America’s best idea.” And last year set visitor records for both systems.

Four parks in Michigan – Isle Royale, Pictured Rocks National Seashore, Sleeping Bear Dunes and River Raisin Battlefield – showed double-digit increases in visitors. And two – Pictured Rocks and River Raisin – set visitor records in 2015, according to the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, which runs along 35 miles of Lake Michigan coast, was the most popular national park in Michigan, drawing 1.5 million visitors last year. Pictured Rocks, located on the north coast of the U.P., attracted a record-setting 735,628 visitors in 2015, according to the National Park Service.

Our parks’ popularity marched in step with the national trend. Total visits to national parks should hit 300 million in 2015, beating out last year’s record of 293 million.

Despite the undoubted popularity of our natural resources, politics in recent years has played an important role in restricting both national and state park growth.

Nationally, tight budgets have restricted creation of new national parks. Moreover, Republican criticism of “governmental overreach” has resulted in introduction of bills – called “No New National Parks Bills” – to strip current and future presidents of authority to designate new national monuments. Some critics argue the current Republican majority in Congress would never vote to renew the Antiquities Act of 1906, which President Theodore Roosevelt used to create our present system of national parks.

Led particularly by Republican lawmakers from the U.P., concern in Michigan has focused on the amount of land owned by the state, currently 4.626 million acres or around seven percent of the state’s total land area. Although this amount hasn’t changed much since 1940, Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 signed a law that capped the amount of land that the state could own. Critics charge that “enough land is too much”, while pro-park people say it makes no sense to put arbitrary caps on public ownership of land reserved for public purposes.

OK, OK. Let’s let that largely partisan argument fizz on the sidelines. And let’s remember how many millions of ordinary Americans voted with their feet, tents and tourism money to visit national and state parks. That’s an enormous political constituency solidly in favor of protecting our natural resources.

Maybe it’s time for some fresh thinking about how best to do it, especially the idea of creating public-private partnerships that offer a model for conserving ecologically important landscapes and the wildlife that live on them. Such a hybrid system wouldn’t have to rely on political log-rolling or government funding by linking private resources and public policies to preserve lands and wildlife for posterity.

This approach was pioneered in the 1990s by the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which assembled millions in private funds to buy conservation easements that provide for continued, sustainable timber harvesting as well as public access for recreation for 248,000 acres and outright purchase of 23,000 acres of the Two Hearted River watershed. This extraordinary project, at the time the largest conservation land deal ever consummated in the lower 48 states, stitched together previously publicly owned tracts into a contiguous protected landscape of 2.1 million acres.

The project was funded largely by Michigan’s great foundations and individual philanthropists and achieved through the active involvement of two Michigan governors (Republican John Engler and Democrat Jennifer Granholm) and the Nature Conservancy. I still remember Gov. Engler padding around his conference room serving coffee to a crowd of assembled foundation heads and Gov. Granholm engaging in direct negotiations between the Nature Conservancy and the Forestland Group, the owner of much of the land in question.

The need for preserving our natural resources persists, according to Helen Taylor, state director of the Nature Conservancy. “Great Lakes and the shorelines, inland lakes, streams and forests are central to a healthy economy and quality of life in Michigan, and they need continued balanced, science-based long-term conservation and restoration so they are there for future generations.”

Much of this work, says Taylor, need not involve state purchase of land; instead, it needs fresh thinking, innovative partnerships and invention of more hybrid projects. Gov. Snyder should take advantage of newly appointed leadership in the Department of Environmental Quality (Keith Creagh) and the Department of Natural Resources (Bill Moritz) to call together experts in natural resources, Michigan philanthropists and what might be called “environmental entrepreneurs” to help advance the state’s land and water strategies to develop a new agenda to focus our attention on the subjects we can agree on rather than the partisanship which is sure to divide us.

New thinking of this sort can importantly come from concerned Michigan residents, particularly readers of Bridge Magazine. As a way to mark and celebrate the New Year, I urge you to send in your comments and innovative suggestions to set a new agenda that could benefit all Michigan’s people for generations to come.

[Disclosure: Helen Taylor is a member of Bridge Magazine’s steering committee. Phil Power is an honorary life trustee of the Nature Conservancy in Michigan, and was board chairman of the organization at the time of the Two-Hearted River land deal noted in this column.]

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