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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Michigan Tackles Biodeversity

Air Date: Week of

Doug Johnson of Michigan Public Radio reports on the brewing battle over implementation of Michigan's first-in-the-nation biodiversity protection law.


NUNLEY: While the Clinton administration weighs the plusses and minuses of the way the Endangered Species Act is currently enforced, a new strategy for species protection is gaining attention in Michigan. Over the next two years, a new commission will develop ways to protect and maintain the diversity of plants and animals in the state. But as Michigan Public Radio's Doug Johnson reports, the new biodiversity law may be running into trouble.

JOHNSON: Forty miles west of Detroit lie the rich mud bogs of the Sharon Hollow Preserve. There was a time when much of Michigan's Lower Peninsula resembled Sharon Hollow's silty swamps. That, however, was before logging.

In the 1800s, Michigan's wetlands were drained and forests completely logged over. Only a fraction of untouched lands remain. Yet here in Sharon Hollow, says Preserve ecologist Laura Matte, live an amazing variety of native plants and animals. The trillium, green violet, and hepatica are just a few of the over 260 species of plants on the preserve.

MATTE: There's oak barons to the west, forest, there's wetlands, there's vernal pools, so there's a lot here.

JOHNSON: Spurred by the damage caused by clear-cutting and development, environmentalists in the state have worked hard to save what's left of Michigan's native habitats. For instance, Michigan's Wetlands Protection Act is one of the toughest in the country.

Now the state has taken a new step in order to preserve the state's natural heritage with the passage of the Michigan Biodiversity Act. State Senator Dr. Vernon Ehlers, a co-sponsor of the act, says the new law is based on an old premise that environmental managers are beginning to rediscover.

EHLERS: It's impossible to talk about saving single species without talking about the whole habitat and maintaining the biodiversity.

JOHNSON: The new law requires that by late 1994, all decisions made by the state that affect land and water must take into account the impact on the local ecosystem. Management, development, and construction plans all will have to be carried out in ways that not only protect existing plant and animal life, but encourage the return of species native to the area, as well.

The problem is that the act only sets goals; it does not address the specifics of how to reach them. And it's in the details of implementation that the consensus which helped pass the bill may start to fray.

SCHWARTZ: Taken to its extreme, some people have proposed that it's really civil rights for microbes and viruses.

JOHNSON: Lee Schwartz is vice president of the Michigan Homebuilders Association. The association supported the biodiversity bill's passage, but Schwartz warns that support could evaporate if the act is used to stop development in the state.

SCHWARTZ: When you look at biodiversity as it's defined in the bill - ecosystem diversity, species diversity, genetic diversity - that's a lot of things to cover and it could potentially throw a lot of unnecessary roadblocks in the way of any sort of development here in the state.

JOHNSON: It's unclear just what would happen if one of more of the groups involved in the biodiversity commission were to walk out of the discussions. Senator Vernon Ehlers recognizes the importance of giving all groups, including developers, a voice at the table, but says the state will have to play a greater role in land use decisions - decisions historically made at the local level. Ehler says the looming battle over control of development could be the toughest fight brought on by the biodiversity law.

EHLERS: Land use planning is part and parcel of this whole thing and the difficult there - frankly, it's a political quagmire that is worse than any swamp I've ever been in. Every community wants to do its own land use planning, and they're very resentful of any efforts by the state to come in and say, "This is what you have to do." So I do plan to get involved in that. It may mean the end of my political career."

JOHNSON: Other potential opponents include farmers who may be forced to change what they grow and how they grow it, as well as the state's powerful hunting lobby. Hunters fear that efforts to restore a naturally balanced ecosystem will mean less hunting in the state. Dennis Knapp is a wildlife biologist with the hunters' group, the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. Knapp asserts the act was meant to educate, not regulate, and he warns that any attempts by "special interest" groups to create another spotted owl controversy will not be tolerated by his organization.

KNAPP: We would be very cautious about that situation here. We don't want to see biodiversity legislation creating de facto wilderness. That would not be an acceptable outcome of this - that it would be a finding that no management is the way to go.

JOHNSON: Still, few of the groups that may be affected by the law are talking publicly of their concerns. Knapp says he hopes all the interest groups can agree on the best means of maintaining and protecting the state's biodiversity. Not just because it's important to Michigan, but because the rest of the nation is watching to see if laws like the Michigan biodiversity act can work

KNAPP: I think the other states are sitting back and looking to see what's going to happen here. And a lot of the states are looking to us to see how or where not to stumble, or what are the positive aspects coming out of here.

JOHNSON: Over the next two years, Michigan will become a national laboratory which may help shape the very concept and definition of biodiversity in a highly developed part of the world. But unless an agreement can be reached on how to implement the new biodiversity act, places like the Sharon Hollow Preserve may become the only reminders of what once was biodiversity in Michigan.

For Living on Earth, this is Doug Johnson.



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