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Sunday, March 24, 2013

State environmentalists blast forest biodiversity bill

Detroit News, Sunday, March 24, 2013

Legislation by state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, would prevent the Department of Natural Resources from classifying public tracts “for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity.” (Michigan Senate website)

Lansing — Michigan environmentalists are upset over a Republican lawmaker's bill to curtail the state's land management powers, claiming it's based on conspiracy theories about the United Nations.

Legislation by state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, would prevent the Department of Natural Resources from classifying public tracts "for the purpose of achieving or maintaining biological diversity." The proposal eliminates requirements the DNR promote forest restoration or continue giving special protection to unusual plants and animals.

Casperson said the legislation is an effort to rein in bureaucratic overreach, while acknowledging he is aware of a 1992 U.N. resolution on sustainable development that some conservatives claim could reduce property rights.

The bill passed the Senate and is under House discussion. This dismays opponents, who said it destroys the underpinnings of Michigan environmental law. They argue it is an extension of widening fears over the 1992 U.N. Agenda 21 resolution — a non-binding blueprint for ways to balance economic growth and environmental protection.

"There is an underlying fear and discomfort with a lack of control (Casperson) feels as a legislator over decisions that are being made," said Brad Garmon, conservation and emerging issues director for the Michigan Environmental Council. "Whether that comes from reading Agenda 21 conspiracy stuff, from working with state agencies over time, or from input from the timber industry… I don't know. But I think it's inaccurate to say there's no connection with (Agenda 21)."

Casperson bristled at such claims while acknowledging he has looked into Agenda 21.

"If that's what they're saying, they should read this," he said, waiving a list of DNR-proposed Biodiversity Sustainability Areas. "They're trying to paint me as a black-helicopter guy."

Agenda 21 came out of a U.N. environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro. Then-President George H.W. Bush was among the signers.

After years of obscurity, the agenda resolution has flared up among small-government adherents, conservative talk show host Glenn Beck and groups such as the John Birch Society. They see Agenda 21 as an insidious drive to raise concepts such as biodiversity — the use of varied plant species — above private property rights and are alarmed Michigan cities — including Dearborn, Ferndale and Ann Arbor — have adopted its concepts.

Environmentalists say their worries about the Casperson bill have roots in 2012 proposals.

State Rep. Greg McMaster, R-Kewadin, sponsored an unsuccessful bill to block governmental units from adopting any policy related to provisions in the 300-page U.N. resolution. It was similar to an ordinance Charlevoix County's commission adopted in October. Casperson talked with constituents about introducing a Senate version, but never did so.

McMaster still carries text on his website asserting Agenda 21 will, among other things, cause "elimination of private property ownership, population control … (and) relocation of people from rural areas into cities."

On the opposite side is Sturgis city commissioner and former Mayor Rob Sisson, who says there's little to fear from the ideas cities are free to use or ignore. An example is a recent land annexation in which Sturgis used cost-saving rain gardens instead of curbs and gutters, said Sisson, who's also president of ConservAmerica — formerly Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Casperson said he shares small-government conservatives' concerns that Agenda 21 could affect Upper Peninsula activities he treasures, especially hunting and fishing, but added his bill attacks stealthy DNR moves. He said he is battling an agency tendency to think "professors" and biologists should have more say over public land policies than taxpayers and state lawmakers.

His measure stirred emotional Senate debate. State Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, charged it would undo 100 years of effort to restore forests and make Michigan a laughingstock among scientists.

Environmentalists contend biodiversity has restored forests wiped out by early 20th-century clear cutting. If those areas had been restocked with ash trees alone, they'd be undergoing another round of devastation now by the emerald ash borer, Garmon said.

"Three quarters of our state lands were acquired after they'd been so badly logged and farmed that there were bereft of any plant life," added Anne Woiwode, director of Michigan's Sierra Club chapter. "The state took on the job of restoring those lands. The irony now is that Casperson wants to give the timber industry more access to those lands."

But Casperson, who ran his family's log-hauling businesses before joining the Legislature, has won praise from colleagues. On the website of the Wisconsin-based Great Lakes Timber Professional Association, group president Denny Olson said Casperson's bill constitutes a Michigan blockade against "an international push to set aside lands throughout the world and return them to their '(n)atural (s)tate'" through Agenda 21.

DNR officials have taken a neutral stance. "We think we can continue to accomplish the state's biodiversity goals within the strictures of this legislation, even though some tools for that task would be limited," department spokesman Ed Golder said.

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