An effort to increase accountability and oversight on the way state funds are used to purchase and develop land for public recreation and natural resource protection is drawing criticism from a Michigan environmental conservation group.
Drew YoungeDyke, policy and communications specialist for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said new legislation proposed in the state Senate would politicize the way the state determines the projects funded through the sale or lease of state-owned mineral rights.
State Sen. Darwin Booher (R–Evart), who introduced Senate Bill (SB) 1238 last month, said the legislation would provide transparency to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (NRTF) project and recommendation approval process. The fund, which receives money from oil, gas and other mineral lease and royalty payments from state-owned land, is dedicated to funding the public acquisition of lands for resource protection and public outdoor recreation.
The bill would require an annual report on unspent funds and direct the NRTF board to give greater consideration to land purchases that would allow for increased recreational use. Additionally, the bill would add two members to the NRTF board — both of whom would serve two four-year terms and be selected by the governor from a list of candidates prepared by the state Senate Majority Leader and Speaker of the House.
“My legislation will ensure proper legislative oversight of state funds by banning the use of vague ecoregions and require the trust fund board to identify and score each individual project and then submit that full, detailed list for legislative approval,” Booher stated in a news release.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) divides the state into four regional landscape ecosystems, or ecoregions, as a way of classifying ecological needs and land use patterns.
YoungeDyke said he believes the bill stems from the state Legislature’s decision earlier this year to slash funding for two ecoregion projects located in northern Michigan that were recommended by the NRTF board.
“When you look at the provision of the bill that stacks the trust fund (board), it’s getting hands into a process that’s not supposed to be political,” YoungeDyke said, adding that the bill would restrict what projects the board recommends.
State Sen. Mike Kowall (R-Commerce, Highland, Milford Township, Milford Village, Walled Lake, Wixom, Wolverine Lake, White Lake, Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield), who serves on the state Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee, where the bill has been referred, said he hasn’t yet studied the proposal.
“I like the idea that they report back to the Legislature,” Kowall said. “All of a sudden there is some transparency involved. Right now the board goes into a room, closes the door and makes the rules.”