Throwback | A Conservation Milestone

For today's Throwback article, we're presenting our full editorial from the August 1976 issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors, just after what is now the Natural Resources Trust Fund was passed by the legislature awaiting Gov. Milliken's signature, which was forthcoming. Though we're celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Trust Fund, appropriately called a "Conservation Milestone" in this editorial, it's worth considering the parallels we face today. Energy development is often portrayed as "economy versus ecology," as it was back then, but we showed that through compromise we can have both. And at a time when there are too many attacks on the very notion of public land, the Trust Fund reminds us that public land is a uniquely American birthright and Michigan was a conservation pioneer in creating this mechanism for the acquisition of more of a great thing for its citizens. 

Historians some day may mark the bitter controversy over oil drilling in the Pigeon River Country State Forest as a milestone of conservation in America. When the complex clash between oil companies, preservationists, sportsmen and the Department of Natural Resources began unfolding a few years ago, it looked as though it would develop into a battle in which there could be no winners. But today, while the battle smoke is still clearing, it appears that there really have been some winners --- approximately nine million of them and countless millions more to come. They are the citizens of Michigan – today and in future generations – who will enjoy the bounty that will come from legislation that was forged in the crucible of the Pigeon River Country controversy.

That controversy posed the classic dilemma pitting economy versus ecology. In this instance, the Natural Resources Commission sold leases back in 1968 to various oil companies to state-owned lands in what was to become the Pigeon River Country State Forest in the northern Lower Peninsula. Preservationists, fearing widespread despoliation of the forest if oil and gas wells were drilled there, protested against the leases and demanded that hydrocarbon extraction be prohibited in the forest.

The Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the largest sportsmen’s organization in the state, took a different approach. Recognizing the need for energy supplies, the state’s precarious legal position in the lease sales and the ability of the environment to withstand the effects of gas and oil developments under rigid controls, directors of MUCC last October adopted a forthright policy that supported limited oil and gas drilling in the forest provided fees from lease sales and royalties were earmarked for purchase of public recreation lands.

MUCC staff members began drafting a proposed bill that would embrace the objectives of the directors’ policy statement. Sen. Kerry Kammer, D-Pontiac, agreed to introduce the bill. Senate Bill 1258 won passage in that chamber by a margin of 29-7 in the face of opposition led by Sen. Joseph S. Mack, D-Ironwood, chariman of the Senate Conservation Committee, who bilified MUCC’s role in the legislation and called the Kammer bill “one of the slickest shell games I’ve ever seen played in this Legislature in 16 years.” In spite of Sen. Mack’s attacks, the Kammer Recreational Land Trust Fund Act of 1976 awaits the signature of Gov. William G. Milliken. This is certain to be forthcoming in view of the Governor’s espousal of his own “Resource Heritage Fund,” which was largely incorporated into the Kammer bill through the amendment process.

Upon signing, the bill will take in a landmark conservation measure that is believed to be unique in the United States. Utilizing fees from oil, gas and mineral leases in the Pigeon River Country State Forests and from any similar other leases the state may enter into after the effective date of the act, the Kammer bill will establish a perpetual trust fund that will enable the state to acquire prime recreation lands wherever and whenever they become available. At least two-thirds of each year’s revenues will go directly into the fund until up to $100 million in principal has been accrued, after which excess fees will revert to the Game and Fish Protection Fund or the General Fund. The other one-third of annual collections will be available for immediate use each year in purchasing land for public recreation.

Because there is no way of knowing how many leases the state will enter into following enactment of the Kammer bill, it is impossible at this time to predict accurately how much revenue will be turned over to the land trust fund each year, but it will be a substantial amount. The Department of Natural Resources believes the fees could total anywhere from $1 million to $6 million during the first year of the act, depending on the amount of new oil and gas drilling. Sen. Kammer’s office pegs the first year’s revenues at between $2.5 million and $3 million. William Rustem, environmental aide to Gov. Milliken, expects about $10 million to be generated annually within 10 years as the fund builds up.

Besides the very considerable income from the land trust fund itself, Michigan will be in a position to take advantage of additional millions of new federal dollars in matching funds for land acquisition, thanks to the Kammer bill.

At long last, the state now will have the resources to negotiate for the purchase of such choice properties as St. Johns Marsh on Lake St. Clair, Celeron Island in the Detroit River, Consumers Power Co. lands along the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers, the Ferris Farm in Shiawassee County – all highly valued for recreational purposes and all extremely costly.

Citizens of Michigan can thank Sen. Kammer for taking the leadership in creating Michigan’s pioneering and far-reaching land trust fund. While they’re at it, they might also give a nod of gratitude for the Pigeon River Country controversy that made it all possible. 

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