State forest plan passed by split Mich. Senate
Biodiversity bill (March 6, 2013)
The measure was approved 26-11 along party lines in the Republican-led chamber. It is sponsored by an Upper Peninsula lawmaker and backed by the timber industry. They contend the legislation is needed to prevent large areas of state-owned land from being declared off-limits to logging and motorized recreation, although officials say that is not their intention.
Supporters say they are concerned about a program being developed by the Department of Natural Resources that would create "biodiversity stewardship areas" for the conservation of species and ecosystems. The DNR says some logging still could be allowed in those areas, which also would offer an opportunity for a return of old-growth forests, which all but disappeared during the logging boom of the 1800s.
Critics of the bill said the agency has sought diversity in species of plants and animals while managing and restoring state lands since its founding in 1921.
"Biodiversity is the principle behind successful efforts to restore Michigan's forests after years of clear-cutting," said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. "It has also been used to help recover wildlife populations enough to move them off the endangered species list.
GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is neutral on the legislation, which next will be considered by the Republican-controlled House. Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said biodiversity is important, but the governor does not believe the bill as passed would stand in the state's way.
The measure would order the state to balance its forest management activities with economic concerns. It also would delete "biological diversity" from the DNR's list of forest management duties, eliminate a requirement that the DNR promote restoration in managing forests and erase a prior legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.
Doug Craven is the director of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Natural Resources Department. He says his department has been loosely following the bill, and are concerned about the impacts the bill could have on state-owned land, if passed into law.
"As a principle as far as our management and our goals, we definitely think there is a value to biodiversity and maintaining biodiversity," he said. "With that, we're pretty concerned about the current legislative trend in exploiting resources a little bit more, and biodiversity being viewed as a detriment or something that hampers economic development."
Craven is worried that current legislators are more focused on short-term rewards of developing or logging land rather than letting it grow into an old-growth forest.
"We're concerned about the forest turning into a monoculture used just for timber production or economic or industrial use. In our opinion, it's a short-sighted approach of the state to management, just looking at the current generation (of forest). We try to look longer-term, a seven-generation approach. We're concerned about actions that are put into place now in regards to sever long-term consequences that aren't thought out by the legislature."
Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, sponsor of the bill, wants a tighter definition for these tracts of land.
"When you talk about restoration, it's too open-ended," said Casperson, a former logger, who said some opponents have no idea how much land is already set aside for protection.
When Democrats proposed a failed amendment putting the new stewardship areas into state law, he listed 22 separate designations used to conserve land — including national parks, state parks, wetlands, critical dunes and state wildlife areas.
"We do not need another program," Casperson said.
Warren said removing the finding that most losses of biological diversity are unintended consequences of human activity "has the potential to make Michigan look like a laughingstock to the scientific community around the country."
Craven said legislature should consider the economic benefits of tourism as well.
"(The bill is) not really consistent with science out there," he said. "The benefits of tourism and the ecosystem heavily depend on biodiversity, which indicates a healthy ecosystem."
The state spent years looking for tracts suitable for the "biodiversity stewardship area" designation, beginning in the northern Lower Peninsula. After consulting with interest groups including the forest products industry and environmentalists, the DNR put together a draft plan identifying 678,000 acres that might be suitable.
Officials planned to take public feedback in 2012 and have a final version for the DNR director to approve this spring.
But the draft drew opposition from the timber industry. And now Casperson's bill is sparking outrage in the environmental community, which says its scope would affect much more than the Living Legacies Initiative.
"This is terrible legislation. It undercuts one of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' chief missions — to protect and enhance the diversity and splendor of Michigan's woodlands and forests," Brad Garmon, director of conservation and emerging issues for the Michigan Environmental Council, said in a statement.
The Snyder administration, however, said it does not think the bill prohibits managing state lands for biodiversity.
"Instead, what it does is prohibits designating particular areas as biodiversity preserves through an administrative rule or order," Wurfel said in an email. "That is consistent with state law as it relates to wilderness and many other designations. We currently believe we can work within the bill to accomplish the state's biodiversity goals."
Craven is also worried about how the bill, if signed into law, could affect the tribe's 2007 Inland Consent Decree, a decree that requires the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to coordinate with tribes in Michigan about land and water use.
"We haven't really in depth taken a look at this proposed bill to see what implications it might have, or if it is consistent with the consent decree, but it very may well impact that," he said.