An inconvenient decade ...

By Dave Dempsey

A look back at how we dealt with Michigan's natural resources over the last 10 years.

If staying in the same place is defined as going forward, Michigan made a lot of environmental progress over the last decade.

A decade that began with a shrinking state environmental budget ends with an even smaller pocketbook for air, water, fish and wildlife protection.

A decade that began with reorganized state environmental agencies ends with another shakeup — the merger of the departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality.

A decade that began with front-page headlines about Great Lakes invasive species ends with a front-page controversy over the invasion of giant Asian carp.

And a decade that began with a hotly contested, unresolved cleanup of massive chemical contamination of the Saginaw River watershed by Dow Chemical Company ends with more public meetings, more studies, and not much cleanup yet.

But while state government struggled to shield Michigan’s environment, hope came from other places — the private land conservancy community and, strangely enough, the federal government. Land conservancies consummated some of their biggest protection deals ever, protecting mammoth swaths of Michigan’s unspoiled dunes and forests.

Washington, meanwhile, finally delivered on a 6-year-old promise to invest in the Great Lakes. The Obama administration boldly went where the Bush administration refused to go, pushing a $475 million cleanup package through Congress, and Michigan stands to get much of the money in 2010 and future years.

There was slight progress, too, in the state Capitol. At the beginning of the decade, the Legislature was hostile to strong environmental protections. As the decade ends, it’s divided on the environment, with leaders in the House like State Rep. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor and Lansing-area members Mark Meadows and Joan Bauer helping offset a polluter-friendly State Senate. That resulted in passage of a law to control major water users and protect rivers as well as restrictions on some toxic products.

Like the Legislature, the decade was decidedly mixed.

First, the good news. About 30 years after private land conservancies surfaced in Michigan, they neared the 500,000-acre threshold of land protected. That’s almost 1.5 per cent of the state’s landscape. The local Mid-Michigan Land Conservancy contributed 1411 acres of land to the total, as its deals began to pick up steam late in the decade.

Melissa Soule, communications director for The Nature Conservancy’s Lansing-based Michigan operation, said the biggest achievement was what she called “the Big U.P. Deal,” which protected 271,338 acres of wetland, forests and open space and connected 2 million acres of wildlife corridors.

“Not only was it monumental for the sheer size of the largest land protection project in Michigan’s history, but it was groundbreaking for how it came together from public and private partners. And, it’s still a working forest, open to the public but protected for nature, forever,” Soule said.

Just before decade’s end, too, a diverse coalition including The Nature Conservancy, the West Michigan Land Conservancy, Saugatuck Save Our Shoreline and the state Natural Resources Trust Fund picked off a gem for the public. The $19 million purchase, coupling private and public money, puts 171 acres of miraculously undeveloped southern Lake Michigan dunes into public conservation. The transaction was completed only last week, capping 290 years of work. Another 230 acres are still at the center of a fight over development.

“It’s just magnificent. You can’t make land like that,” Soule said.

The federal Great Lakes money is supposed to redeem the ravaged freshwater ecosystem from a plague of toxic sites, degraded habitat, invasive species and fertilizer, pesticide and urban sewage and stormwater pollution. The biggest one-time federal boost for the Great Lakes ever, the $475 million is just part of a promised $5 billion Obama “down payment” on protection and an estimated $20 billion price tag for a complete Great Lakes cleanup.

The Granholm environmental legacy includes a few memorable steps forward. She personally played a crucial role in one of the most important private land protection deals, pushing Consumers Energy to sell a 6,000-acre tract that includes the world-class Arcadia Dunes. She also helped with the Conservancy’s Upper Peninsula transaction.

Her administration mapped out a new renewable energy policy for the state, slowing down construction of new, polluting coal-fired power plants and championing wind energy as one solution to the state’s economic woes.

But it wasn’t all roses, not by a long shot. As attorney general, Granholm said a proposal by Nestle to pump, bottle and sell Michigan water required approval of all the Great Lakes states. As governor a little over a year later, she backed Nestle, short-circuiting regional approval and risking the privatization of publicly owned Great Lakes waters. “The Great Lakes, now a private commodity, will never be viewed the same again,” said Muskegon County conservationist Tom Hamilton.

Granholm shocked environmental organizations by proposing this year the repeal of the state’s nationally heralded 1979 wetland protection law — to dig a measly $2 million out of a billion-plus state budget hole. Only intervention by some of those same organizations and the State House rescued the law, although it was weakened.

A sore point in the administration’s performance was its fumbling of the Dow contamination issue. As candidate in 2002, Granholm staged a news conference to chide the company for 20 years of stonewalling and vowed to speed up the healing of the Saginaw River system and bay. As governor, she vacillated, afraid to confront Dow, resulting in intervention by a Bush Administration EPA official (who herself was fired for getting tough on the chemical company). The result is small patches of cleanup and a raging battle among the company’s defenders and adversaries — and a near standoff between Dow and state and federal enforcers.

“Governor Granholm had the opportunity to lead on this monumental contamination [problem], said Saginaw activist Michelle Hurd Riddick. “Instead, she capitulated to the polluter, dissed the DEQ and all but ignored the public health and well being of the community.”

She added: “It’s disheartening to live amid these inland seas in such troubled environmental times ... being painfully aware there is not one voice in a position of authority demanding these waters be defended and protected at all costs.”

Maybe the next decade will identify such a voice in Michigan.