By MICHAEL GERSTEIN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Green groups like the Little Traverse Conservancy and Mid-Michigan Land Conservancy are pushing to protect and preserve as much of Michigan’s pristine beauty as possible. That’s what they do.
But at a time when a new law limits the ability of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to acquire more land, more responsibility might fall on the shoulders of conservancies in the state; a role experts say conservancies can’t fill.
The law that took effect in July 2012 caps the amount of state-owned land to roughly 4 million acres. That’s disconcerting for environmentalists, who call the limit arbitrary and argue it will render the state potentially unable to cope with rising demand for public land.
Amid that political debate, conservancies are slowly but surely increasing the amount of land they protect.
Organizations like the Harbor Springs-based Little Traverse Conservancy already guards in the neighborhood of 44,000 acres in the Lower and Upper Peninsulas. All land that it owns or that helped secure for government agencies and universities is open for public use. Privately owned farms and forest where it holds conservation easements are not open to the public.
The conservancy often acts as a consultant for interested parties like government agencies, said executive director Tom Bailey. One of its most recent projects is with the DNR, which wants to buy lakefront property in Charlevoix County’s Hayes Township, through the Natural Resources Trust Fund. It also operates in Mackinac, Cheboygan, Emmet and Chippewa counties.
Other conservancies are doing the same, said Julie Stoneman, director for the Grand Ledge-based Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy, an organization that represents 31 of the state’s nonprofit land conservancies.
The group touts an increase of 17,000 protected acres in 2012, bringing the total amount of protected land to 578,000 acres.
A great deal of environmentally valuable land, including the majority protected by the Little Traverse and Mid-Michigan conservancies, is protected through something called a conservation easement.
Little Traverse Conservancy likens it to a bundle of sticks. Imagine each stick represents a landowner’s right: the more sticks you have, the more rights you have with respect to your land.
Building, subdividing land and extracting minerals are all rights of landowners. And owners can give up some rights – or sticks from the bundle – through a conservation easement. Though such an agreement, the conservancy protects the land but doesn’t own it. The owner sometimes gets significant tax breaks through easements.
It’s through such agreements that Little Traverse protects the majority of its land, Bailey said. But land covered by conservancies this way isn’t public.
That’s why even with those conservation gains, environmentalists and preservationists say they can’t pick up the slack caused by insufficient public land.
Stoneman, a critic of the land limit, said, “A one-size-fits-all arbitrary cap doesn’t answer the question of how much land is too much land.
“Do we have enough?” In some places yes, but “in some places we don’t.” She said more public land is needed for recreation in the Lower Peninsula.
Echoing that concern is Sierra Club Michigan chapter president Anne Woiwode.
Woiwode calls the limitation “short sighted,” likening it to “chopping down trees to improve your view,” and said some legislators fail to understand what Michigan citizens value.
Still, many Republican legislators counter that the state has bitten off more than it can chew, and not all of them view the new law as a mere political maneuver.
Sponsor Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said 2011 was “a perfect illustration when the DNR announced its plans to close 23 more state forest campgrounds, claiming that it can no longer afford to operate them.
“Yet the department continues to pursue acquisitions of more land,” Casperson said.
But experts say that limit could be overturned if legislation to examine how the state’s land is being used passes soon.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s call to look at DNR land use would be employed to determine how much the state needs.
And with a Snyder-imposed deadline looming in May, the law would overturn the land-cap.
Rich Bowman, director of government relations for the Michigan Nature Conservancy, said, “The cap, in some ways, is really a mechanism to encourage the agency to develop this plan.” The group has 21 preserves statewide.
Bowman added that the cap excludes land used to “complete or connect” a trail, and said he doubts whether it will adversely affect forest users in any substantive way. Also exempt, he said, are the roughly 1.5 million acres of land owned through the state’s Commercial Forest Program and open to public use.
But experts like Stoneman and Woiwode disagree with that analysis.
The Sierra Club’s Woiwode said, “No conservancy or land trust was ever intended to supplant public land ownership.”
Most conservancies don’t protect designated hunting or camping areas like state land does, and Woiwode said that’s why public land is needed.
DNR legislative coordinator Donna Stine said that if the cap is not overturned, “there would be less opportunities to create state parks.”
Stine said the agency has already reduced the amount of new land it’s acquiring, but didn’t provide a specific amount or example.
Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Legislature is considering more limitations.
A new bill would remove nature conservancy and protecting biological diversity from the list of DNR responsibilities.
It’s sponsored by Sens. Casperson; Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton; Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive; David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc; Mike Green, R-Mayville; Darwin Booher, R-Evart; and Howard Walker, R- Traverse City.
Others are unhappy about the would-be limitation.
Paul Kindel, president of the Okemos-based Mid-Michigan Land Conservancy, said he’s “very concerned” with the potential impact that could have on natural resources, adding that it “should concern any resident in the state.”
His organization works in Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Ionia, Shiawassee, Hillsdale and Jackson counties.
Kindel said the proposal “indicates that some legislators don’t understand how the ecosystem works.”
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