Michigan's air cleaner, but watch out for carp and friends

Michigan may be best known as the home of the domestic auto industry, but state officials are focusing more on creating a wider public image, focusing on the spectacular natural world found so near the auto assembly lines.

The state’s highly successful Pure Michigan tourism advertising campaign showcases many of them, including the Great Lakes, forests, rivers and the rugged beauty of the Upper Peninsula.

But just how well are we caring for those irreplaceable resources?

Using as the basis of its review a in-depth state report, the 2012 Michigan Scorecard has evaluated environmental protection and ranked the state’s stewardship of its resources as “good.”

The ranking is based on “The State of Michigan’s Environment 2011” a comprehensive, 82-page report that assesses the condition of wildlife populations, water quality, forests and other natural resources.

It also addresses the threats from pollution, invasive species and other environmental hazards. The report is required by the Legislature to be published every three years by the Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality.

“The idea is that by documenting changes in environmental indicators like animal and fish populations, state forests, land cover, air quality and surface water, we can identify trends and craft policies to ensure that our natural treasures remain intact for our kids, their kids and beyond,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in the report’s introduction.

Air quality in the state has seen a “marked improvement” over the past 40 years, the report said. But with advances in air quality science leading to more stringent standards, challenges remain.

Michigan is replenishing its forests, with forested acres at the highest level since the 1930s. Prior to that time, forests were devastated by over-cutting and fire.

“The state will never again see the vast forest acreages or the old-growth forests that once were present,” the report said. “However, recent inventory data indicate the state’s forests have been steadily recovering over the past century.”

Toxic chemical releases and the amount of Canadian trash entering Michigan are both down, while the number of corrective actions at hazardous waste sites is up.

Many wildlife populations, including bear, wolf, eagle and moose, have grown considerably in recent years.

Fish populations are mixed, though, depending on species and location, and mercury levels in fish remain high.

Invasive aquatic species also are a continuing threat to the Great Lakes. More than 160 exotic specifies were introduced to the Great Lakes between 1980 and 1999, mostly from ballast water released from ocean-going cargo ships.

The report does not specifically mention Asian carp, which have yet to reach the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River system. But the species is regarded as one of the most serious threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem in decades.

Under pressure from Michigan’s congressional delegation and others, the federal government said this month that it would step up efforts to keep the carp from entering Lake Michigan through Chicago’s waterways.

James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said he generally agreed with the findings in the state’s environmental report card.

But he said there are a number of concerns not adequately addressed in the report, including cleanups of “legacy” industrial sites, nutrient runoffs into the Great Lakes and disease-causing funguses, viruses and invasive insects entering the environment.

“I think what the report misses most is the lack of progress in tackling legacy problems,” he said. “We’re finding as many new contaminated areas as we cleaning up old ones.”

A recent Bridge Magazine analysis reported that Michigan has 9,100 leaking underground storage tanks, but little money to clean them up.

Clift said he concurs with the scorecard’s “good” ranking on the environment, but with reservations.

“I would say good, but at risk,” he said. “If we don’t take steps to fix some of these problems, we’re going to lose this ranking.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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