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Michigan's Land Preservation System Questioned

Drafted legislation would take a conservancy's property tax exemptions if land is not open to the public. PHOTO: Linda
Drafted legislation would take a conservancy's property tax exemptions if land is not open to the public. PHOTO: Linda


For decades communities in Michigan have been preserving land with help from the Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Mackinac Headlands, Arcadia Dunes and Clay Cliffs near Leland were all purchased with the help of these grants. But now some state senators want to change the way the system works. And the groups most expert at using the trust fund, say the changes are radical.

Catalyst for community renewal
For years Acme Township has been trying to make itself more of a destination. The community along U.S. 31 near Traverse City is mostly a place you pass through.

Township Supervisor Wayne Kladder says until recently Acme had just a boat launch and small public beach that wasn't used much.

"We had people in our township who didn't even know our park was here."

Back around 2008 the township began buying up adjacent properties along the coast. But waterfront property on East Grand Traverse Bay isn't cheap, so the township has had help from the Natural Resources Trust Fund, six million dollars worth.

Kladder says they're rebuilding their economy around this land.

"This one here is going to create opportunities," says Kladder about the expanded shoreline park, "and make people know where Acme is because they'll associate this park with Acme."

Preserving Michigan's most beautiful places
As lovely as the shoreline is in Acme, it's nothing special for the Natural Resources Trust Fund. Every December a list of projects is recommended that protect the most stunning pieces of land across the Michigan.

But legislation pending in Lansing could make big changes to how it all works. One proposal would restrict what a community like Acme could do in the future if it wants help from the fund. It says local governments can't solicit the landowner. So if a township wanted to buy a piece of land to make a park, officials couldn't ask if the owner would be willing to sell. Neither could a land conservancy. Those are non-profits that specialize in this work.

The conservancies are a little perplexed by these proposals. Glen Chown, executive director of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, says the system has been working well and calls the proposed changes radical.

Chown is particularly incensed about a bill that has been drafted but not submitted. It would take away a conservancy's property tax exemptions if land is not opened up for any recreational use, including motorized vehicles.

Chown says they're not opposed to motorized vehicle where they're appropriate.

"For the legislature to dictate the types of uses on our conservancy preserves through this bill is ludicrous."

Politics of conservation
Chown worries the whole business of land preservation becomes much more political under these bills. One would reorganize the trust fund board to be more accountable to elected officials.

And State Senator Tom Casperson says that's the way it should be. Casperson is a Republican from Escanaba who has drafted some of this legislation. He thinks it's better for elected officials to be in charge rather than department officials.

"At the end of the day it's the process we have and it's a good one."

What the current governor thinks will be an interesting question if this legislation makes it to his desk. Snyder was formerly on the board of the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the state's largest.