The politics of nature meet the nature of politics

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Readers: How would you allocate the Natural Resources Trust Fund? Note your opinion in poll at the end of this story.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R- Escanaba, is anything but undeterred.

Casperson's bill calls for additional funding from the trust fund to be used for roads and trails. Photo: Tom Casperson.

Casperson’s bill calls for additional funding from the trust fund to be used for roads and trails. Photo: Tom Casperson.

In late February, he and another Republican proposed altering the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, a long-standing pot of money that the state uses to buy land and improve recreation facilities. Sen. John Moolenaar of Midland proposed spending it on dredging. Casperson supported the dredging bill and also proposed using the fund for “road and trail maintenance on any state owned land.”

Two months later, Attorney General Bill Schuette essentially killed both bills, issuing a formal opinion that they violate the Michigan Constitution.

But Casperson, who chairs the senate’s Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, says he’s not giving up quite yet.

The 1984 constitutional amendment Scheutte cited clearly defines the trust fund’s acceptable uses as recreational development and land purchases. So his opinion didn’t come as a shock to many, even Casperson.

“I’m more disappointed, but I don’t know if I could say I’m surprised,” he said, acknowledging that he was aware of the amendment while drafting his bill.

So why propose a bill almost assuredly headed for doom? More importantly, why is he continuing to pursue those two bills that are now barely on life support?

A tempting source in troubling times

The interest on the $500 million trust fund finances state land purchases and recreational improvements as diverse as public pool renovations and installing handicap accessible restrooms at state parks. The money comes from oil, gas and mineral royalties on state-owned land.

Now that the trust fund has reached its cap, excess revenues are deposited into the State Parks Endowment Fund until that reaches its cap of $800 million. (As of the last annual report in 2012, it was at approximately $171 million.)

The State Parks Endowment Fund can be used for maintenance projects like those Casperson is trying to get funding for, like road and trail upgrades in state parks. But the demand for those projects far exceeds the available funding.

Since the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund’s inception in 1976, it has contributed more than $919.1 million in grants — many of which funded the over 1,250 projects for state and local recreation projects, according to the state’s most recent report,

“The thought behind [the trust fund] is that extracting oil and gas takes a toll on the environment; this helps offset that damage a little bit,” said Hugh McDiarmid, communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council.

A plaque dedicated to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund stands at Greenview Point Park in Lyons, MI. The park received a $144,700 grant for improvements in 2005. Photo: Becky McKendry.

A plaque dedicated to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund stands at Greenview Point Park in Lyons, MI. The park received a $144,700 grant for improvements in 2005. Photo: Becky McKendry.

That sentiment didn’t always ring true. Over the long history of the trust fund, politicians have often viewed it as a tempting way to fix funding problems elsewhere.

“There’s money sitting there with a single purpose that’s being effectively managed — they don’t use the fund all at once, and they use the interest,” said Chuck Nelson, a forestry professor at Michigan State University. “That is an invitation to people who are trying to pull themselves out of financial holes.”

In 1976, its first year in existence, the fund was used as a loan source to replace and fix double bottom tankers. Twice in the early 1980s, lawmakers raided it for a total of more than $70 million to make up for general budget shortfalls. That money was never repaid. And in 1983, former Gov. James Blanchard tried to take money from the fund to pay for his anti-unemployment program, Youth Corps.

In 1984 voters, worried that the fund would be drained, voted 2-1 for a constitutional amendment to prevent future diversions. The purpose of the trust fund has been static ever since.

“[Now] the money is being spent just as voters determined it should be when they put these restrictions for the trust fund into the state constitution,” said Ed Golder, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

That doesn’t mean lawmakers have resisted trying to get their hands on the fund. Michigan State Rep. Dave Agema authored a 2011 proposal to take the majority of the money out of the fund — and put 60 percent into the Michigan Transportation Fund and 20 percent into the State Aeronautics Fund. It failed.

And it appears that history is repeating itself.

Failure to yield

The logical question remains: With an apparent lack of support, and a constitutional amendment designed to prevent exactly what these legislators are proposing, why propose such bills?

There is strategy behind authoring such doomed bills, Nelson said. They allow for self-portrayal as a budget balancer and appeal to certain constituent groups.

“There’s a political advantage to these bills — it doesn’t matter if they got shot down, you can say you tried,” he said.

Casperson says the political motivation is located elsewhere. The trust fund board tends to ignore certain projects, like trail upgrades for the motorized recreational groups that his bill supports, he said.

“Anyone who proposes different uses [of the fund] is perceived as not having a pure heart and using it for political reasons,” he said. “But there are those in the trust fund who seem to have preference for certain interest groups. Is that not political in nature? It seems like it is.”

Casperson said that after consulting with some fellow senators, he will cautiously move ahead with his bill and support moving ahead with Moolenaar’s dredging bill.

“It’s our understanding that we, the legislature, have the ability to change this,” he said. “We can’t control the fund, but I think we have some legislative latitude in broadening what they can use that money for.”

A jogger enjoys a trail at East Lansing's White Park, which was improved by a $225,000  grant in 2007, as well as a pavilion and softball field. Photo: Chelsea Mongeau.

A jogger uses a trail at East Lansing’s White Park. The park used a $225,000 trust fund grant in 2007 to develop their nature trail, as well as a pavilion and softball field. Photo: Chelsea Mongeau.

Others disagree.

“You cannot use legislation like this to change what’s in the constitution,” said Erin McDonough, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “The constitution trumps legislation every time.”

Michigan United Conservation Clubs has backed the protection of the trust fund for decades; it was one of the first groups to lobby for the constitutional amendment.

Regardless of the constitutionality, the public would never support the measures, Nelson said.

“If [these bills] ever got to the voters, they’d be blown to smithereens.”

Casperson remains cautiously hopeful. The issue here is one of concept and perception, and less about contradicting the state constitution, he said. As long as others broaden their perceptions of what is considered development, his proposed projects for recreational trails and roads could be legally funded with the trust fund.

And even if the views of McDonough and the attorney general stand, Casperson will consider further action – including changing the constitution.

“Let’s say we don’t win, and our ideas are deemed unconstitutional,” he said. “I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be right to have that conversation about amending the state constitution.”

Using bad language to fix potholes?

If the bills advance, the language of Casperson’s may be a critical problem — for both himself and his opposition. It called for trust fund dollars to be used for “any state owned” roads and trails… as in many of the streets and freeways we take to go to work or the supermarket.

Casperson emphasized that this is not what he meant.

“When we talk about road maintenance, I don’t want [money from the fund] to go towards filling potholes on a regular street,” Casperson said.

The situation he was trying to avoid, he said, is unfairly turning down projects for recreational roads and trails that happen to also be used for commercial purposes like logging.

He said he will fix the language of his bill to clarify his intentions, but he doesn’t “know how to put it yet.”

Nelson believes that the language was more than just a case of semantics.

“When you write a bill, you work with the legislative services bureau, you tell them exactly what you want,” he said. “There’s no oversight like that.”

Clarifying his intentions is just another hurdle that he will have to overcome in much needed reform to the trust fund, Casperson said.

To Nelson, it’s just another reminder that no one can resist a big pot of money — the reason voters enshrined the fund’s function in the constitution.

“State parks are extraordinarily valuable to us now, and they will be a hundred years from now,” he said. “But this long-term thinking is not the thinking of people who are facing elections every two years.”

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Editor’s note: Lindsay Dunbar and Chelsea Mongeau contributed to this story.

9 thoughts on “The politics of nature meet the nature of politics

  1. PRIVATE BOTTLING COMPANIES ARE PUMPING THE STATE OF MICHIGAN IN 56 PUMPING STATIONS, THEREFORE DRAINING THE ENTIRE GREAT LAKES DRAINAGE BASIN. THE WATER TABLE KEEPS REPLENISHING ITSELF BY SUCKING IN THE WATER FROM THE ALL THE GREAT LAKES. PLEASE VOTE TO STOP THE UNCONTROLLED DRAINING OF THE GREAT LAKES. ONCE THE WATER IS GONE, IT WILL NOT COME BACK.

  2. Wow, thank you. You nailed it. Politicians that run on a theory to be anti-everything is bad enough, but politicans that target DNR to make points back home with the uninformed and uncaring constituents. The reform of decades of natural resource management practices by one of the most respected agencies in American under the guise of public policy is an insult at best. The apparent personal agendas to deregulate, dismantle and destroy resources, programs and management practices had to be exposed, thank you.Term limits can not come soon enough, as the deep pockets of resource exploiters continue the should there selfish greed. The vested interest is obvious, and the pride in this approach is even more disgusting.

  3. The voting categories did not include local parks. Most of the trust fund money goes to city, township and county park projects. It is the lifeblood of local park and trail land acquisition and development.

    It seems obvious to me that Casperson’s attempt to have logging roads classified as trails is only a means to have the trust fund pay for the creation or maintenance of logging roads, his family business. I do believe his heart is pure in that sense.

  4. Any use that actually benefits or protects/restores our natural resources. Natural resources trust fund do what it says, it really can be that simple.

  5. Senator Tom Casperson’s cohort of low life sleaze in the lower peninsula is Senator Geoff Hansen, R- Hart 34 District. Our West Michigan watersheds and AOC PACs understand our local Republicans well. Sen Hansen has always made sure the DNR&DEQ were never funded adequately to be a threat to his developers and polluter pals, but now supports some DNR funding on the backs of the sportsmen licenses. Sen Hansen supported Casperson’s SB78 specifically to screw up forest and wildlife management in his local Muskegon River and White River watersheds. At the same time Hansen supports stealing the NRTF money for dredging and anything else he can get away with. Statewide Republicans know that stealing the NRTF means less competition for developers destroying our resources and less money for parks such as Fisherman’s Landing on Muskegon Lake that Republicans support stealing for their corporations. Our FL’s 2012 NRTF grant was turned down because of the political turmoil of city Muskegon working to steal FL. Republicans and Hansen simply want more NRTF money for their rich marina/condo pals and less NRTF money for minority public access to water. Now Sen Geoff Hansen is demanding local West Michigan watersheds go through him for NRTF grants to purchase wetlands right after Hansen just supported gutting the wetlands protections with his SB163. Hansen knows he can now force the environmentalist to help his next campaign. If the NRTF gives a grant in-spite-of Hansen’s interference, Hansen demands to take the credit for his campaign. It is sad how Muskegon County environmentalist are now forced into supporting bad Republicans to keep their jobs.

  6. You could also use that money to start up a garbage burning facility that generates electricity. It would ensure less runoff from landfills entering water supplies, and pay for itself with less money needed for allocating landfills… No… No… wait a minute, more jobs and a “greener” planet don’t mix.

  7. Money should be used for purchase of property and enhancement of those parcels, as well as existing parks and recreational facilities.

  8. Trust fund money should be spent on all of the first four selections above plus it would be great to have more programming to educate the public about Michigan’s natural beauty. Spending some of the money to send kids (especially city kids) to summer camp so they can experience and learn to appreciate nature wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Helping to fight invasive species, stock lakes and streams with fish, even using it to subsidize hunting and boating safety courses would be a great use of this money. They need to use it to benefit the general public rather than big business.

  9. Tom Casperson is among the best and the brightest of the Republican Party. He is just looking out for his own commercial logging interests at the expense of the public good. Term limits won’t come fast enough for this Bozo.

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