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Don’t dredge away nature fund’s value

When I moved from Northern Virginia after a stint in the Army about three years ago, I wanted to live back home in rural Michigan. Commuting bumper-to-bumper into Washington, D.C., was not how I envisioned my adult years.

SETTING UP: Astronomy fans prepare to view the transit of Venus during an event at Emmet County’s new “dark sky” park near the Mackinac Bridge. Brunch with Bridge columnist Brandon Hubbard notes that funds for this endeavor – and others – would be put at risk if lawmakers change the rules on the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund. (courtesy photo/Emmet County)

SETTING UP: Astronomy fans prepare to view the transit of Venus during an event at Emmet County’s new “dark sky” park near the Mackinac Bridge. Brunch with Bridge columnist Brandon Hubbard notes that funds for this endeavor – and others – would be put at risk if lawmakers change the rules on the state’s Natural Resources Trust Fund. (courtesy photo/Emmet County)

I wanted to live where kayaking, fishing or skiing was an option after work, as opposed to driving back to my small apartment to browse the DVR for the latest episode of “Mad Men.”

My pivotal moment came listening to a gray-haired shuttle driver describe his cabin in upstate New York, where he would be retiring at the end of that particular week.

“I bet that will be great,” I said. “I want to buy a cabin someday when I retire.”

He replied, “If I had it to do over, I would have moved to that cabin when I was your age.”

That exchange propelled me back home to Northern Michigan, where access to water is truly unparalleled.

So, when several state senators introduced legislation earlier this year to raid the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to pay for harbor dredging, it made me wonder what kind of state they wanted to live in.

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has been one of the few really steadfast programs in the state. In 37 years, it has put almost $1 billion into conservation and recreational improvements. Backed by strong state sales for natural gas leases, the fund hit its $500 million cap for funds in 2011. The trust has enabled the purchase of  statewide treasurers such as the Pigeon River Forest, the habitat for Michigan’s elk population, and William G. Milliken State Park in downtown Detroit.

More importantly, the fund, which also is fed by state oil leases, enables the sort of local re-visioning that people like Gov. Rick Snyder trumpet as how the Great Lakes State will make its comeback.

When Snyder says Michigan will become the “trail state” and connect a 924-mile trail from Belle Isle through the Upper Peninsula to Wisconsin, he was largely referencing more than 20 years of rail-to-trail development the NRTF has been financially backing with local governments.

That visionary trail will connect dozens of previously developed segments, such as the 62-mile North Central State Trail connecting Gaylord to Mackinaw City, which received about $500,000 of its $2.2 million in funding from MNRTF grants.

The NRTF also serves as the catalyst for local governments to have big ideas.

In 1996, Emmet County – where I live – spent about $34,000 from its own funds to purchase the 575-acre Headlands property west of the Mackinac Bridge. The untouched forest land has more than four miles of trails and natural habitat as the northernmost tip of the Lower Peninsula on Lake Michigan.

Having the parcel in the public trust is a no-brainer. But the county has gone much further.

County volunteers and staff secured a designation in 2011 from the International Dark Sky Association to have the park named one of nine “International Dark Sky Parks” in the world. The property is a preserve for astronomers trying to see the night sky free of light pollution, and has become a popular stop for tourists interested in natural spectacles like the Northern Lights.

Based on the designation, a trust grant is being sought to make a universally accessible boardwalk. Other improvements, like an observatory, also are in the long-term plans.

If the NRTF gets tapped for transportation projects – even dredging – those improvements will be slowed under the formula voters established in the Michigan Constitution in 1984.

Only 25 percent of the annual trust fund grants can go to developmental grants, capped at $300,000 and requiring a 25 percent local match. The other 75 percent are unlimited grants used for acquisitions.

If Senate Bill 229  became law, allowing harbor dredging projects to be included in the granting process, the 25 percent developmental amount would have to compete directly with park projects and other recreational requests.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch politically to imagine roads, public transit, airports and anything else transportation-related wouldn’t be far behind once the grant definition is expanded.

Tapping the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund for anything other than recreation and conservation is theft.

Worse, political pirating could stunt a state looking to reinvent itself as a place where a younger generation wants to live and work.

Brandon Hubbard is a freelance reporter and former staff writer for the Petoskey News-Review. He served in the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2007-08, and will eat anything for brunch, as long as you are cooking. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

2 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Lance Weyeneth

    Mr. Hubbard,

    Your personal view defines the very specifics envisioned by a generation of Michigan Residents! Those residents voted for these protections and for a quality-of-life by constitutional amendment… And now the Will-of-the-People is threatened by political shenanigans. Let’s hope real Leadership will be displayed by our Governor as the raid on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund moves through the current House and Senate.

    Thank you for sharing your reasons for coming back to the Great Lake State!!

  2. John Q.

    Well said Brandon!

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