Oct. 6, 2017 – CNS Budget

Oct. 6, 2017 — Week 5

To: CNS Editors

From: Perry Parks and Andi Brancato


For technical problems, contact CNS technical manager Tony Cepak at (517) 803-6841 or  cepak@msu.edu.

For other matters, contact Perry Parks: parksp@msu.edu


MICHIGAN JOURNALISM HALL OF  FAME: Nominations are open and due by Jan. 22, 2018. The induction ceremony is scheduled for April 15. For details on how to submit nominations, go to    


Here is your file:

LIQUORRULE: Some state officials want to eliminate a restriction that keeps liquor stores at least a half mile apart. They say it stifles competition. But opponents say it helps limit the number of stores in a particular area and protects small operators from getting squeezed out of business. A bill is moving through the Senate to keep the restriction in place. We hear from Grand Ledge and Wayland senators and Traverse City and Holland retailers. By Kaley Fech. FOR HOLLAND, TRAVERSE CITY, LANSING CITY LIMITS, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS AND ALL POINTS

MENTALHEALTH: Up to 64 percent of county jail inmates in Michigan have some form of mental illness. That has police scrambling to increase training to learn how to handle people who should be in mental hospitals instead of behind bars. Advocates say cooperation among agencies is at an all-time high. We hear from and about law enforcement and mental health experts in Oakland, Cheboygan and Kalamazoo counties, Clinton-Eaton-Ingham counties, AuSable Valley and Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, as well as the ACLU and Sheriffs’ Association. By Jack Nissen. FOR CHEBOYGAN, GRAND RAPIDSBUSINESS, METRO TIMES, LANSING CITY PULSE AND ALL POINTS

XMASTREES: While warm weather hangs on, Michigan Christmas tree growers are readying for another strong year of sales. Michigan ranks third in the nation in the number of Christmas trees harvested, supplying about 1.7 million fresh trees to the national market each year. We talk to growers from Mason and Manton, as well as the state and national growers’ associations. By Carl Stoddard. FOR CADILLAC, TRAVERSE CITY, CRAWFORD COUNTY, LANSING CITY PULSE, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS, LUDINGTON, LAKE COUNTY, CHEBOYGAN, ALCONA, GLADWIN, MONTMORENCY, PETOSKEY, MANISTEE, BIG RAPICS, HERALD-REVIEW AND ALL POINTS

W/XMASTREEPHOTO: The Windy Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Thetford Township, north of Flint, is one of many tree farms in Michigan. The state is the third-largest Christmas tree producer in the country, after Oregon and North Carolina. Credit: Carl Stoddard

CLEANUPCRITERIA: Emergency rules for how much of a hazardous solvent can be left in contaminated  groundwater are set to expire Oct. 27. But the Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a new limit for the chemical responsible for a high-profile groundwater contamination west of Ann Arbor. Other affected sites are in Oshtemo and Metamora townships. The change may be the first among a series of revisions to cleanup criteria for up to 300 other chemicals. We also hear from the Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Petroleum Association and a Wayland senator. By Kaley Fech. FOR GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS, STURGIS, HOLLAND, THREE RIVERS, METRO TIMES AND ALL POINTS

ENROLLMENT  — Public school enrollment in Michigan will decline by more than 5 percent by 2025, according to one projection. It is one of only nine states facing that fate. That means even less revenue for struggling schools, whose expenses don’t drop in proportion to lower student counts. Officials say not enough young people are staying and having children in Michigan. We hear from an Allegan Schools official. By Jack Nissen. FOR HOLLAND, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS& ALL POINTS

FARMRUNOFF: Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers in Michigan and across the Great Lakes region to help fight water pollution. The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland. We learn about the Saginaw River Watershed and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. By Steven Maier. FOR GLADWIN, ALCONA, CHEBOYGAN, MARQUETTE, SAULT STE. MARIE, LEELANAU, PETOSKEY, HARBOR SPRINGS, OCEANA, TRAVERSE CITY, MANISTEE, LUDINGTON, HOLLAND, BAY MILLS, ST. IGNACE, GRAND RAPIDS BUSINESS AND ALL POINTS.

LYNX: It’s scientifically feasible for the National Park Service to reintroduce the Canada lynx onto Isle Royale after the predator’s disappearance eight decades ago, according to a new study. The island has a sufficient supply of the lynx’s favorite food, snowshoe hares, to support a population of about 30 lynx. They’d probably be imported from Ontario. Meanwhile, the Park Service is expected to decide the controversial issue of whether to bring more wolves to the island to replenish that animal’s population late this fall or early this winter. By Eric Freedman. FOR MARQUETTE, BAY MILLS, SAULT STE. MARIE, CHEBOYGAN AND ALL POINTS.

           w/LYNXPHOTO: Canada lynx. Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

State set to renew groundwater rule for toxic chemical

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s emergency rules on how much of a particular hazardous chemical can be left in groundwater are set to expire Oct. 27, and that could create an environmental problem in the state.

To address the concern, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is proposing  a new rule with a limit of 7.2 parts per billion for 1,4-dioxane, which is responsible for a high-profile groundwater contamination west of Ann Arbor at the site of Gelman Sciences. The company used the chemical to manufacture medical filters.

If a new rule is not approved before the expiration, the limit will revert to 85 parts per billion, the level it was before the emergency rules went into effect in 2016, said Mitch Adelman, section manager for the remediation and redevelopment division of the DEQ.

The department is working with those responsible for the contamination to assure that human health and the environment are protected using the new, lower limit for contamination, Adelman said.

But Gelman Sciences isn’t the only site where the chemical has led to groundwater  contamination. The West KL Avenue Landfill in Oshtemo Township and the Metamora Landfill in Metamora Township have been contaminated by 1,4-dioxane as well, Adelman said, resulting in groundwater contamination.

The proposed new rules would continue the emergency rules that are set to expire and are before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, chair of that committee, said they will likely be approved.

“They’ll go into place about a week before the other ones expire,” he said.

The Michigan Environmental Council agrees with the proposed limits.

“It’s needed a lower number for years,” said James Clift, the policy director for the council.

The 1,4-dioxane rule is being considered separately so that standards do not revert to 2002 values that were in place before the 2016 emergency rules were implemented.

The 1,4-dioxane solvent is a clear liquid chemical that easily dissolves in water, and is considered likely carcinogenic to people, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term exposure can also cause kidney and liver damage, according to the DEQ.  

It’s used mainly when making other chemicals and can be found in paint strippers, glues and pesticides.

Although it can also be found in some makeup, lotions, detergents, bath products and shampoos, the amount found in these products is not likely to be harmful, even if used every day, according to the DEQ.

The DEQ’s proposed change on 1,4-dioxane may be the first of a series of revisions to clean up criteria for up to hundreds of other chemicals.  

The DEQ has been updating the toxicological, physical and chemical data for over 300 hazardous substances to help set new cleanup criteria, Adelman said.

He said there are more than 9,000 contaminated sites across Michigan.

That more extensive overhaul has met with various levels of opposition.

Although the Michigan Environmental Council supports an update, Clift said he believes the proposed rules fail to provide for new science as it emerges.

“We want the cleanup processes to use the best available science,” Clift said. “Unfortunately, this doesn’t provide a way to adjust the rules with the development of new science.”

That is a safety concern, he said.

“They’re supposed to regulate any substance that could cause injury,” Clift said. “The inability to update the rules without going through the time-consuming rulemaking process every time leaves them powerless to regulate new chemicals.”

The Michigan Petroleum Association said it worries the rules are too strict and will become a bigger hindrance than a help.

The association’s members have cleaned up more than 2,000 underground sites, said Mark Griffin, the industry group’s president. “All of that is in jeopardy of coming to a standstill.”

He said contaminated sites are currently cleaned to a level that won’t harm anyone; he believes the new criteria require a level for cleanup of contaminated sites that is unreachable.

“Our concern with the new rules is getting sites cleaned up and closed,” Griffin said. “We’d hate to lose all that progress.”

The Michigan Environmental Council said it’s been too long since the rules were revised.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce said its members acknowledge the rules for cleaning up contaminated sites need to be updated.

“It’s improved from where it started, and it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jason Geer, the chamber’s director of energy and environmental policy. “Our members all recognize that it needed to be fixed.”

Michigan school enrollments projected to drop

Capital News Service

LANSING — A forecast for Michigan’s public school enrollment is bleak.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently predicted that public school enrollment in Michigan will decline more than 5 percent by 2025. It is one of only nine states facing that fate.

“Most districts have seen a decrease in enrollment over the past several years, granted some more than others, but this is widespread throughout our state,” said Chris Wigent, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

As of 2017, a little more than 1.3 million students are enrolled in  public schools. A 5 percent drop represents a loss of 65,000 pupils.

A school district receives a little more than $7,500 from the state per enrolled student. To put those numbers in perspective, if a district has 1,500 students and loses 30 children a year, that’s more than a $225,000 loss. But when losses pile up, it doesn’t mean other expenses can be cut, said Wigent.

When students leave, it doesn’t happen in only one grade, but across the entire kindergarten through 12th grade system, Wigent said. That means the number of teachers can’t necessarily be reduced. And expenses like transportation remain the same, he added.

“Quality education is one big part of the equation to continue to have our state move forward in a positive economic direction,” Wigent said. “There are many parts of that equation. They all have an impact on each other. It’s like a Rubik’s cube.”

And enrollment is a significant piece of that puzzle.

Enrollment doesn’t just fall for no reason. Michigan’s state demographer, Eric Guthrie, says it can be because of a fall in birth rate, an increase in deaths and migration out of the state.

Michigan hasn’t had an increase in its mortality rate, so that leaves the other two options.

”When we look at the structure of the population, we see fewer people of early childbearing years, so we’re going to see a decline of young persons,” Guthrie said. “If you look at the population structure of Michigan, you can see right after those college years, we have a reduction in populations in that 25-40 year age group.”

U.S. census figures show Michigan saw .7 percent of people ages 22-34 migrating from the state between 2014 and 2015.

But that’s only part of the puzzle. For those who stay in the state, Guthrie said many delay having children to complete their own educations.

“These things mixed together are driving down our school aid populations and will continue to do so for the near future,” Guthrie said.

The author of the study that cites those projections says the prediction model is usually fairly accurate. Those projections come from an analysis of the number of students enrolled in one grade, compared with the number of those enrolled in the grade below.

Michigan public school enrollment has been declining for some time. The National Center for Education Statistics reports its K-12 enrollment is at its lowest in five decades — from 2.1 million in 1971 to 1.4 million in 2016.

A reduction in enrollment also leads to a reduction in educators, Wigent said.

“The biggest impact that we’ve seen is a reduction of salaries for teachers, for support staff and administrators,” Wigent said. “And the outcome of that is we have this shortage of educators in our state.”

Allegan Public Schools has had a decline in enrollment for the last 10 years, and like much of the state has suffered a decline in teachers.

“Obviously, the biggest impact is going to be on our staffing levels,” said Allegan Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Harness. “If you budget-crunch for that long, you start to lose a lot of important people.”

Wigent says the state needs to pay attention to studies that show where the money for education is going. Those numbers will play an important role in how the state tackles future education reform.

“I think we’re going to need to look at those carefully and we’re going to have to prioritize and pay attention to how schools need to be funded,” Wigent said. “And really take a look at school reform in Michigan. It seems all the arrows point to that right now.”

Michigan passed major tax and school finance changes 20 years ago. As everyone knows, things have changed over the past 20 years, Wigent said, and it’s time to look at it again.

State agencies unite to reduce mental illness in jails

Capital News Service

LANSING — Up to 64 percent of county jail inmates in Michigan have some form of mental illness.

And while lawmakers discuss ways to reduce that number, law enforcement officers have put their own solutions to the test.

“Police chiefs are saying, ‘We’re spending tons of time with individuals with severe mental illness in the community and then we’re bringing them to jail,’” said Ross Buitendorp, a board member of the Mental Health Diversion Council.

Jails have become mental health hospitals, said Blaine Koops, the executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association.

Koops estimates between 45 and 65 percent of county jail inmates receive some form of psychotropic medication for mental illness, and 90 to 95 percent have some type of substance abuse problems.

Jails are not the best places to treat people with mental illness, Buitendorp said, so agencies are working together to identify and treat those who need help.

Law enforcement agencies are tackling the problem by increasing use of a decades-old program called Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, Buitendorp said. The 40-hour class trains officers to better identify people with mental illness, and intervene in a smarter way.

A CIT-trained officer can recognize symptoms that someone who is suicidal, bipolar or schizophrenic might show during times of stress.

“What the officer does is look at the behavior of the person in front of them, and run it against the symptoms they’ve been trained in,” said Rafael Diaz, a lieutenant with the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department. “So when they see these things, they can separate the conduct driven by a mental health crisis as opposed to criminal conduct.”

The goal after recognizing those symptoms is slowing things down. Officers have time on their side, Diaz said.

“They’re going to try to open lines of communication using a set of skills called ‘active listening,’” Diaz said.

Active listening is an effort to hear what the person is saying. That can take time because many mentally ill patients have thought-process problems. But a successful attempt can calm the individuals instead of further agitating them.

In addition to keeping people with mental illness out of jail, CIT training also emphasizes diverting patients already behind bars to a mental care facility. Officials without such training are much less likely to move a person with a mental health crisis to an appropriate facility.

While Michigan doesn’t keep track of the reduced number of injuries during these interactions, other cities like Memphis, Tennessee, where CIT training has been in wider use, show the training works, Diaz said.

So Michigan agencies are doing more of it. The Community Mental Health Board of Clinton, Ingham and Eaton Counties reports 95 cases of the method used in the last year. lt expects to have 160 officers trained before 2018.

Buitendorp is also the director of substance abuse at Network180, a community health agency in Kent County that has helped train 80 officers.

“The police departments and the emergency departments are our biggest fans and our biggest partners,” Buitendorp said, “because we all serve the same clients.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says the increased training is a great first step to addressing larger issues like mass incarceration of undeserving individuals.

“Recognizing that mental health issues are at the base of a lot of these criminal charges is so important,” said Shelli Weisenberg, ACLU’s political director. “Putting the resources for the training, creating those collaborations even though we don’t have resources in place, it’s a fabulous first start.”

The money comes from grants distributed by the federal government and the jail-diversion committee, donations from organizations like the National Alliance for Mental Illness and increased commitments from police agencies willing to send officers to be trained.

For example, Oakland County has a mental crisis center, called Common Ground, designed for people needing immediate mental help. It’s an important stop for many police officers who need to drop off a mentally ill person, said Jeff Kapuscinski, the director of business development at the agency.

“We think that the programs and services we provide for people in those situations are not only more appropriate for the care they might need at that moment, but it’s also less costly for taxpayers than sending them to jail,” Kapuscinski said.

Kapuscinski says Common Ground is one of only a handful of agencies of its kind in the country. The agency diverted 431 people from jail in 2015, saving Oakland County more than $5 million.

The savings represent progress, Kapuscinski said, but it’s not more than money is necessary. A lack of material resources, like available beds in hospitals, is a serious problem for mentally ill patients.

“Frequently, it’s been our experience that folks experiencing mental health issues or a mental health crisis are lower in terms of the priority of being served in an emergency department,” Kapuscinski said. “That’s when emergency department boarding becomes an issue.”

Both Koops and Kapuscinski agree it’s not uncommon for inmates to wait weeks for an open spot.

“The number-one issue up here is not training, it’s the availability of bed space for mental health patients,” said Cheboygan County Sheriff Dale Clarmont. “We had a violent offender with mental issues a little while ago who waited three days before we got a bed for him.”

AuSable Valley Community Mental Health, which covers Iosco, Ogemaw and Oscoda counties, averages three to four such individuals a year. Northern Lakes Community Mental Health, which covers six counties in the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula, diverted 30 people people from jail.

Clarmont requires that all of his officers receive training every 24 months, but those training sessions are less in-depth than some that are hosted further south.

“We can train them for the very short term,” he said. “But we are not mental health officials. To be frank, we don’t have the medication or facilities.”

Despite the mountain of barriers many sheriffs and community health officials have begun to climb, other public figures involved in the conversation are on the move. In July, 2017 the MiLegislature created the House C.A.R.E.S. task force made up of 14 lawmakers. The group is charged with addressing the growing issue of mental health, and that includes mental health reform in the criminal justice system.

“We’ve identified through the first meetings of the task force, perhaps we can do a better job of communication when someone enters the corrections area,” said Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, a member of the task force. “We have to find the best way to care for these folks.”

For Koops, of the Sheriffs’ Association, the pivot toward more help for the mentally ill is a welcome first step toward solving an old problem.

“From a personal perspective, I’ve been doing this for 42 years,” he said. “And this is the first time in 42 years I’ve actually seen some coalitions come together to see this issue and want to work and make it better.”

Commission moves to lift liquor store location requirements

Capital News Service

LANSING – The state Liquor Control Commission is pushing to allow liquor stores to locate closer to each other, saying an existing rule prevents competition and denies opportunities for small business owners.

The commission recently voted to repeal the current restriction, in effect since 1979, which prohibits stores from being located within a half mile of each other, said David Harns, public information officer for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules must agree to the change for the repeal to go into effect.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, who chairs that committee, said he supports eliminating the half-mile restriction.

“To say a company can’t operate within half a mile of another that sells liquor is anti- free market,” he said.

Harns agrees.

“The artificial half-mile boundary has stifled competition in an industry that should be open and free for small businesses to serve their local communities,” he said.

But the move has generated some opposition from existing retailers fearing competition and legislators concerned about having too much liquor in one place.

“I don’t see a reason for it,” said Joshua Botsis, owner of Southside Party Store in Holland. “It will only negatively influence the stores that already exist.”

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, introduced a bill in June to make the half-mile rule a law. If the rule were to become a law, the Liquor Control Commission would be unable to rescind it.

“The rule for 40 years was that liquor stores had to be a half mile from each other,” Jones said. “Now an unelected board can change that rule.”

The Senate Regulatory Reform Committee has sent an amended version of the bill to the full Senate.

Jones said his concern is the potential increase in the number of liquor stores in a certain area.

“Cities are nervous about having a liquor store on every corner,” Jones said.

But Harns said such fears are unfounded. The Liquor Control Commission cannot increase the number of licenses allowed. The commission can issue one license for every 3,000 people in a city, incorporated village or township.

“The false claim that there will be a liquor store on every corner is absurd on its face,” Harns said. “It is impossible by law to have a liquor store on every corner unless the Legislature passes a law that would create more licenses.”

Jones contends that the change will impact small, locally owned stores.

“Families could lose their life savings,” he said. “When they opened their stores, they expected to not have any competition for half a mile. With this rule, a store could open right next to them and take away their business.”

Jeff Dobler, owner of the Beverage Company in Traverse City, said the rule benefits only large stores like Meijer.

“With this, a Meijer can build right next to a Costco and compete for their business,” Dobler said. “Small stores benefit from having a little bit of distance.”

Small stores will not be able to compete with big ones, Jones said. “This allows big box stores to run out the little guys.”

Holiday season underway for Christmas tree growers

Capital News Service

LANSING — The holiday season is set to begin for Michigan’s Christmas tree growers, who are hoping to at least match last year’s sales.

By the end of October, Michigan tree farmers will be harvesting trees and shipping them to stores and Christmas tree lots in several states. That’s all in preparation for the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the Christmas tree-buying season.

“The day after Thanksgiving, we will open the doors and there will be people waiting in line,” said Mel Koelling, who with his wife Laurie owns and operates Tannenbaum Farms in Mason, south of Lansing. “We are always optimistic.”

Koelling has been growing and selling Christmas trees for about 40 years. In that time, he said, sales have steadily increased.

About 80 to 100 of the farm’s 160 acres are planted with Christmas trees, and nearly all will be sold to individuals, primarily customers who want to cut their own trees, Koelling said.

“We certainly promote the experience,” he said. “We try to make it into an enjoyable, memorable experience.”

It is not unusual to see two or three generations show up together to get a tree, Koelling added. He encourages customers to make the selection of a tree a family tradition because Christmas is the “most significant of all American holidays.”

Also preparing for the season is Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, which  owns and leases a total of 7,000 acres. Dutchman, owned by Joel Hoekwater and Chris Maciborski, is considered the largest Christmas tree farm in Michigan and sells nearly all of its trees to the wholesale market, said Pam Vanderwal, its office manager.

She said the farm expects an increase in sales this year, in part due to Christmas tree shortages in North Carolina and on the West Coast. Workers at the farm, which is near Cadillac, already are busy preparing for the upcoming Christmas season.

“We are in full gear here now, taking orders, trying to figure out how many trees we need,” Vanderwal said.

According to its website, the farm started by selling one variety, Scotch pine, at a farmers market in 1972. Today it offers nine varieties of cut trees, ranging from 3 feet to 50 feet tall.

Dutchman Farms also offers balled and container-grown evergreens, seedlings, wreaths and other Christmas greenery.

Tannenbaum and Dutchman are among the many farms that place Michigan third in the nation in the number of Christmas trees harvested, supplying about 1.7 million fresh trees to the national market each year, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association.

Michigan also grows and sells more than nine major Christmas tree species on a wholesale level, which is more species than any other state, the association said.

In all, Michigan has about 27,000 acres in commercial Christmas tree production, with an annual net value of more than $27 million.

The industry makes an additional $1.3 million in the sales of wreaths, cut boughs, garland and other related items, according to the association. And, for every Christmas tree harvested, Michigan growers plant three new trees for future harvests.

While there will be plenty of trees for available for holiday decorating, the association warns that particular varieties might be hard to come by.

Amy Start, executive director of the 172-member Durand-based industry association, said years ago, Scotch pine Christmas trees were the top sellers in Michigan, but they have since been edged out by the increasingly popular Fraser firs. In fact, the Frasers are a little too popular.

“Fraser firs will be hard to get,” Start said. “There’s not enough to harvest.”

Tannenbaum Farms’ Koelling, who was a forestry professor at Michigan State University for 35 years, said about 25 percent of Michigan’s  growers produce trees for the wholesale market, shipping trees to stores and lots as far away as the Gulf Coast.

Most of those growers are in the less populated areas of the state, and together they produce about 75 percent of the trees sold in Michigan each year.

The majority of tree farms, he said, are in the more populated parts of the state, sell mostly to individual customers. However, they account for only about 25 percent of the  trees sold in the state each year.

Around the country, some 350 million Christmas trees currently are growing, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. The average growing time of a Christmas tree is seven years.

The national association says the top Christmas tree-producing states, in order, are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Michigan farmers encouraged to help fight water pollution

Capital News Service

LANSING — Federal officials are launching a two-year study to determine the best ways to convince farmers, including those in Michigan, to fight water pollution in the Great Lakes region.

The pollution has created conditions ripe for excessive algal blooms that perennially appear in Lake Erie and other lakes and bays and threaten water quality. The culprit: nutrient-laden runoff, much of which comes from farmland.

The runoff has forced national, regional and local agencies, organizations and universities to collaborate on a solution. Their goal: convince more farmers across the Great Lakes region to implement sustainable farming practices.

That’s not always easy, said Great Lakes Commission Program Director Victoria Pebbles.

“It’s very, very difficult because farmers are proud, they’re private and they feel like the finger’s being pointed at them,” she said. “And most of these people are honest people and hardworking people who are just trying to do their best.”

Interest from farmers is substantial, said Brian Buehler, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service public affairs specialist for Michigan. But they often need help bearing the financial burden.

“Producers have been doing this for a long time, and they’re tried and true practices, so getting anyone to change is, it’s a challenge,” Buehler said. “They need to see it makes economic sense for them, because you know, it is a business.”

Among the programs that will be assessed to determine best methods at reducing agricultural runoff is the Saginaw River watershed.

“I think the farmers realize that they can have a big impact,” said Ben Thelen, a district conservationist with the Saginaw Conservation District. “And you know, a lot of them want to do the right thing.”

Farmers in the Saginaw River watershed used to compete for conservation grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thelen said. A waiting list formed.

Farmers still compete for funds, but the Saginaw River watershed’s priority designation narrowed the competitive pool and allowed more farmers to make changes, he said.

The Great Lakes Commission begins a two-year study in November, looking to channel federal sustainable practices subsidy dollars more efficiently into the hands of county officials and the pockets of farmers. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has put more than $100 million into those pockets over the past six years, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

In addition to the Saginaw River watershed, the commission will assess programs in three other watersheds: Wisconsin’s Lower Fox River; New York’s Genesee River; and the Maumee River, which winds through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The practices of many farmers in all four watersheds have been the subject of prior studies, and the commission also has access to data submitted annually by each initiative-funded project.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted in September to continue funding the restoration initiative, despite President Donald Trump’s proposal to zero out a its $300 million allocation from the federal budget. Deliberation over the possible budget cut continues in the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s Pebbles said battling algal blooms and its resulting poor water quality has been a main focus for the initiative since it launched in 2012, funding more than 90 programs to reduce farm runoff. Problems created by the blooms are serious: In 2014, algae blooms tainted tap water in Toledo, Ohio, causing shutoffs for 500,000 residents.

The bulk of the work comes from local governments like the Outagamie County Land Conservation Department, in Appleton, Wisconsin. It’s part of the Lower Fox River watershed and is just outside of Green Bay. Like much of the Great Lakes, the bay is plagued by algal blooms — killing fish, forcing beach closings and damaging the local economy.

Runoff reduction won’t happen without large-scale buy-in from the farmers, said Greg Baneck, a county conservationist with 14 years under his belt in Outagamie.

“Basically, we are the local delivery method for getting the conservation on the ground,” Baneck said. “That’s the only way we’re getting down to the water quality standards, is if we have the funding for the boots on the ground.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has helped immensely on that front, he said. It allows the county to employ 12 full-time conservation staffers, up from seven. That makes it easier to meet directly with farmers.

Initiative funding has also made it cheaper for farmers to implement watershed-friendly practices, Baneck said. The county shares the cost of things like seeds for cover crops that keep the soil packed after harvest when fields would otherwise be brown and bare. It has also bought expensive conservation-friendly equipment that is loaned to farmers.

Outagamie County loans out its crimper roller, a machine that crushes and kills cover crops, clearing the way for planting and creating a protective bed over the seed. The decomposing stalks then fertilize the seed.  

Farmers can also cost-share installment of drainage tiles, which help regulate the amounts of runoff.

Baneck said there’s been a mindset change.

“Most farmers want to do the right thing,” he said. “If we can show them the financial benefit of it, that’s huge.

“Bottom line, everyone wants to still make a profit and help the environment, and that’s what we’re showing them.”

As more farmers see their neighbors adopt new practices, the momentum builds, Baneck said.

Collaboration and federal funding has also aided county officials in the Genesee River watershed in New York.

Water quality-related problems have persisted there for years, said Molly Cassatt, district manager of the Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Her district has partnered with 11 others to form the Genesee River Watershed Coalition of Conservation Districts. The coalition crosses state lines, with one county located in Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to work together so that these projects aren’t small and scattered, but really address the worst areas of the watershed,” Cassatt said.

And with programs “saturated with money” from federal sources, she said, adoption of conservation practices has hastened as farmers no longer have to wait long periods until they’re able to sign up for cost-sharing programs.

That increased buy-in from farmers is what the Great Lakes Commission is seeking.

Pebbles said, “What we want to know is, what’s changing behavior in the long term? If the money went away tomorrow, would they continue to implement these conservation practices?”

The study’s core team is composed of officials from the commission, Michigan State University and Ohio State University. The commission will also assemble an advisory team composed of county officials from those watersheds.

Steven Maier is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.

Lynx could survive if returned to Isle Royale, study suggests

Capital News Service

LANSING — Can the Canada lynx return to Isle Royale and survive there?

The most likely answer is “yes,” according to a new study of the feasibility of reintroducing a predator that’s been gone from the national park in Lake Superior since the 1930s.

There is a high potential for a successful lynx reintroduction to Isle Royale if the animals are appropriately monitored and managed, according to a research team from the National Park Service and the University of Minnesota Duluth. Most likely they’d be brought in from Ontario.

Bringing back the lynx means “Isle Royale could continue its long and storied tradition as a site that leads to a better understanding of wildlife ecology and conservation,” the study said.

Wolves, which are currently the top-tier predator species on the island, arrived there in 1949. Since then they have been decimated by inbreeding, disease and harsh winters. With only two wolves now believed to be surviving, there’s ongoing debate about whether the Park Service should relocate wolves onto the island.

“The wolf plan/environmental impact statement in still in progress. We expect to have the final decision late this fall or early winter,” said Elizabeth Valencia, the Isle Royale National Park cultural historian. “The preferred alternative, identified in the public review draft earlier this year, is to bring in wolves.”

Daniel Licht, the lead author of the new study and a Park Service regional wildlife biologist, said conflicts between wolves and lynx on the island are unlikely because they eat different animals. Wolves eat moose and deer while lynx prefer snowshoe hares and sometimes squirrels.

The two species coexist in arboreal forests — dense, lush wooded areas with mature tree canopies — in other parts of North America, including Canada and Alaska, he said.

A 2016 Park Service feasibility study reported, “Wolves are likely dominant over lynx. However, the degree and type of interaction between the two species is mostly unknown and probably negligible.”

Whether the Park Service should reintroduce the lynx is a separate question for scientists, natural resource managers and policy makers.

The study estimated that the island could support about 30 lynx, based on its population of snowshoe hares. Other research estimated that the island could support as many as 44 lynx.

Because 99 percent of Isle Royale is a federally designated wilderness where motorized vehicles, hunting and trapping are banned, lynx wouldn’t be at risk of death from hunters or collisions with motor vehicles, according to the study published in “Natural Areas Journal.”

That contrasts with the experience in Colorado, where lynx were reintroduced in 1997. There, firearms and vehicles are blamed for 32 percent of known lynx deaths. Plague — a disease absent from Isle Royale — caused 7 percent of the known deaths.

Caribou and lynx were originally the largest mammals on the island, but caribou were wiped out in the 1920s. Another predator, the coyote, colonized the island in the 1900s but disappeared in the 1950s.

Moose colonized Isle Royale in 1909, and the most recent survey by Michigan Technical University estimated their number at 1,600.

The new study said the island’s former lynx population may never have been self-supporting but could have sustained itself as more migrated across the ice bridges from the mainland, improving genetic diversity.

It’s unlikely but not impossible that lynx would be able to return to the island without human intervention, the study said. That’s because ice bridges between Isle Royale and the Minnesota shoreline about 14 miles away are significantly less common than in the past, although there was one in 2015.

In fact, Licht said, there have been occasional reported lynx sightings since the 1940s, most likely animals that arrived over ice bridges but either returned the same way or died on the island.

If lynx were brought back, periodic introduction of additional animals might still be necessary to maintain viability of the population the study said.

According to the study, introduction of one male and one female every 10 years would dramatically increase the probability of the species’ long-term survival there and reduce inbreeding.

That makes “intuitive biological sense,” the researchers wrote, but added that such a timetable should change if monitoring finds undesirable levels of genetic diversity. If that happened, more lynx brought in from the mainland could refresh the gene pool.