Since 1976, royalties from the sale and lease of state-owned mineral rights have been used to acquire land to protect valuable resources and create public outdoor recreation areas.
In 1984, Michigan residents voted overwhelmingly to create the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund; the constitutional amendment required that oil, gas, and other mineral lease and royalty payments be placed into the Fund and proceeds used to acquire and develop public recreation lands.
The Trust Fund has since that time literally changed the Michigan landscape; grants have paid for land purchases across the state (dozens in Grand Traverse County alone) and safeguarded thousands of acres of woodland, rivers and lakes.
Trust Fund money has also been used to make annual in-lieu-of-taxes payments to local units of government to make up for the property taxes on state-owned land.
The genius of the Trust Fund has been that it creates a revenue source the Legislature can't get at. If you know the first thing about how Lansing works, you know that if the Legislature had that money, it would be gone in a twinkling, and mostly to deep-pocketed special interests.
The Trust Fund has granted $2 million to help Long Lake Township and the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy purchase the former Timbers Recreation Area on Long Lake. It's a perfect example of what the Trust Fund is all about, and why Michigan residents must nuke — at whatever cost — a push by a handful of lawmakers to control the Trust Fund.
The Long Lake property, which was used for more than 50 years as a Girl Scouts camp, is one of the premier recreation tracts in all of northern Michigan. The 250-acre parcel features nearly 2,000 feet of frontage on Long Lake and 9,000 feet of water frontage in total — including 20-acre Fern Lake — hiking, fishing, swimming and picnicking areas, all within about 10 minutes of Traverse City. It's simply superb.
But a group of senators led largely by Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba, who comes from the timber industry, seems ready turn control of the trust fund over to the Legislature.
The Legislature has almost never inserted itself into the grant-making process; but the senate recently passed an appropriations bill that strips out four Trust Fund-recommended DNR projects. Observers said the move was unprecedented and opens the Trust Fund to routine "pork" politics.
This year the Legislature passed a Casperson bill that would cap DNR land purchases at 4,626,000 acres; right now the state has 4.5 million, which means there's a bit of wiggle room left. A cap could prevent purchases like the Long Lake property, whatever its potential.
The only way the DNR could exceed the cap is to purchase land from the timber and paper companies that currently own Commercial Forest Act lands. Casperson has also proposed a constitutional amendment to use Trust Fund money to build logging and mining roads on state land.
Casperson has also authored a bill that would make non-profits exempt from property taxes — such as land conservancies — open their land to public use or pay up, even though they have no way to monitor such use.
Gov. Rick Snyder has ordered the DNR to come up with a long-overdue land management plan that would force the state to sell off property it didn't need, which could help mitigate the cap. That's going to be crucial to keep the Trust Fund independent.
In short, Michigan's legacy of allowing citizens to enjoy the state's amazing natural resources is in jeopardy.
Given the Republican majority's recent bill-passing frenzy, don't be surprised by an effort to undo the Trust Fund and all it represents, whatever citizens may want.
There are precious few places like the Timbers Recreation Area left; we must protect our right to protect them.