The spirit is willing, but the wetland protection is weak.

Michigan’s 30-year-old wetland protection law has always been stronger in its intent than in effect. Punctured from the start by exceptions and chronically under-funded, it has still managed to staunch the century-old bleeding of the state’s valuable marshes, swamps and fens.

But the state wetland protection effort is facing a formidable threat yet — a triple-barreled blast from Guest Column shriveling state tax revenues, always hostile legislators and property rights advocates, and a Granholm administration that has grown tired of defending it.

In her 2009 State of the State message, Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed turning over the state wetland program to the federal government, which would require repealing the 1979 Wetland Protection Act. Why would she propose something that her anti-environment predecessor, John Engler, never dared?

The proposal resulted from “Michigan’s severe economic challenges limiting funds for needed government services and the program’s structural funding shortfall,” said Frank Ruswick, the Department of Environmental Quality’s senior policy adviser.

“Decreasing appropriations, loss of staff, and an increasing workload had led the MDEQ to conclude that it faced a significant structural imbalance between meeting assigned legal responsibilities for protecting wetlands and other sensitive natural features and the funding afforded to meet those responsibilities,” Ruswck said. “Prior attempts to address this imbalance through increased fees failed for lack of support from payers, interest groups, and legislators.”

Ruswick’s e-mailed comment signals the frustration of DEQ managers who have collided with reluctant lawmakers over proposed hikes in permit fees to make up for dwindling general fund dollars. As a side benefit of the governor’s proposal, Granholm’s advisers also cited a potential annual savings of the remaining $2 million in general funds from terminating the program. Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann doesn’t like the economics.

“In saving $2 million,” Lindemann said, “the governor is putting at risk billions of dollars of fresh water resources and economic development, and costing billions in new infrastructure expenses and time delay working through federal government permitting.” Lindemann and others point out that wetlands are valuable to society and provide free services like filtering pollutants, providing fish and wildlife habitat and reducing flood waters.

It’s never been easy to protect wetlands here or anywhere else in America. Despised as wastelands from which pestilence emerged, wetlands were the target of official government drainage policy until the middle part of the 20th century. Michigan’s wetland acreage has diminished since European settlement from 11 million to 5.5 million acres.

An early local example of the phenomenon was Chandler Farm, 12 miles northeast of Lansing. When Michigan became a state, marsh grass populated what was originally a 5,000-acre lake, but under the ownership of Zachariah Chandler, who represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate after the Civil War, some 2,000 acres were drained by the digging of a ditch. As one environmental historian put it, “Legislators regarded swamps as afflicted and agriculturally barren lands in urgent need of human ingenuity.”

Although scientific recognition of wetland values developed rapidly, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that conservation interests marshaled the strength to push a wetland bill through the Michigan Legislature. It happened over the fierce resistance of many who regarded it as an attack on property rights.

“I believe that the needs of people, in my judgment, shouldn’t be superseded by a cattail or a pussywillow,” said the late Upper Peninsula state Sen. Joe Mack. “I think frankly that we’re getting into a socialistic government under the disguise of preserving the ecology.”

The law that passed over Mack’s objections, despite its loopholes and exemptions, was tough enough to get the blessing of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1984. Only one other state, New Jersey, has won the EPA seal of approval. That means that the state can, in most areas of Michigan, provide a one-stop shop for wetland permits, issuing both federal and state approvals. The resulting efficiency is a reason the Michigan Association of Homebuilders reacted coolly to Granholm’s proposal.

“We are fervent supporters of keeping that authority with the state,” director Lee Schwartz said.

But Granholm’s idea has backing, and not from her usual allies. State Sen. Roger Kahn, R-Saginaw, hailed the proposal and introduced a bill to make it happen. Kahn cited grievances against the DEQ, which he said “has been overly punitive to property owners, often times delaying permits or eliminating whole sections of private properties to development by not granting permits.” (State figures show over 80 percent of wetland permits applied for are granted.)

What’s going on from the perspective of the wetlands program staff? One DEQ employee wanting to remain anonymous put it this way: “Our division management, and [DEQ Director Steve Chester] really, have not turned around the 12 years of Engler/Harding mentality. [Russell Harding was Gov. Engler’s DEQ director.] “No positive changes have been put forward by management, no strong leaders with a natural resource ethic have been promoted in (the Land and Water Management Division), none of the supervisors who are inept or worse were removed, staff morale is terrible… . It’s a miracle that for the most part, we are still in pretty good shape at a staff level and good work is still being done.”

It appears now the wetland program may win a one-year reprieve. The DEQ’s Ruswick says there’s “much interest in finding a way to maintain the program in the near term to allow collaborative consideration of the nature and funding of the program in the long term.”

Whatever the future of wetland protection in Michigan, Granholm has left her signature of confusion and indecision on yet another area of Michigan government — offering up a proposal appalling her strongest backers, letting it dangle in the Legislature, and ultimately, perhaps, leaving it to her successor to sort out.

(Dave Dempsey is a former City Pulse columnist who advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to1989. He is author of a book on Michigans conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)

Once condemned as breeding grounds of evil and disease, wetlands have won a more favorable reputation as science advances.

Heres what they do for humanity:

• Flood and storm control: through the absorption and storage capacity of wetlands.

Wildlife habitat: providing breeding, nesting, and feeding grounds and
cover for many forms of wildlife and waterfowl, including migratory
waterfowl, and rare, threatened, or endangered wildlife species.

• Protection of subsurface water resources and provision of valuable watersheds and recharging ground water supplies.

• Pollution treatment: serving as a biological and chemical oxidation basin.

• Erosion control: serving as a sedimentation area and filtering basin, absorbing silt and organic matter.

• Sources of nutrients in water food cycles and nursery grounds and sanctuaries for fish.