The Natural Resources Commission has an important role in the conservation policy world

This is part one of a three-part series outlining each body’s different roles in conservation policymaking. Rulemaking is an often complex and contentious process. But since 1937, Michigan United Conservation Clubs has sought to keep politics out of natural resources management and the conversations focused on the issues that matter.

By Charlie Booher

Making policy is a complicated, sticky process. Many people and institutions are involved, and all of them have a long history. Thankfully, we can break these procedures down into manageable, bite-sized pieces. In the next three issues of Michigan Out-of-Doors, I will be examining the bodies that govern our natural resources here in the State of Michigan and how they interact with each other. These will include the Natural Resources Commission (NRC), the Michigan State Legislature and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). This edition will highlight the Michigan NRC — an institution that is often misunderstood.

To start, an understanding of natural resource management history might help: In the United States, wildlife and sportfish are held in a “public trust” that is under the jurisdiction of each state — that’s why you need a separate license to hunt in Wisconsin or Ohio if you drive across the border. Much like a financial trust, the beneficiaries or owners of the public trust do not manage the resources held within it; this responsibility is left to a given “trustee.” With wildlife, the beneficiaries are the citizens of the state where that wildlife lives and the trustee is the government of that state. This means that, under most circumstances, the three branches of government that oversee the rest of the state (legislative, executive and judicial) also oversee these natural resources. Naturally, most of this rulemaking fell to the state legislatures, as these bodies are responsible for creating laws — more on how this institution is involved next quarter. Many of these legislatures, like ours here in Michigan, decided at some point that it would be more efficient to delegate natural resource management to an appointed body than to make all decisions through the lengthy legislative processes necessary for other laws. Thus, the NRC was born.

The Michigan NRC is a public body consisting of seven state citizens. All seven members of the NRC are governor-appointed, with the Senate holding advice and consent power over the appointments. As commissioners are appointed, they are not required to have backgrounds in wildlife or fisheries biology, ecology, agriculture or natural resource management. However, many of them do, and they are appointed with recommendations from the state Senate and the MDNR. Each commissioner serves for a term of four years. The first Michigan NRC was established in 1922 to oversee the state Department of Conservation, a precursor to the current MDNR.

As a whole, this autonomous body oversees the actions of the MDNR at the discretion of the state legislature. In theory, this removes natural resource policy from the politicking of the legislature and allows scientific research to guide decision-making. However, this decision was not made wholly by the state legislature. In 1996, the citizens of Michigan voted to adopt the Michigan Wildlife Management Referendum, also known as Proposal G. This ballot initiative granted the Commission the exclusive authority to regulate the taking of game and sportfish. “Taking,” in this case, includes the creation of license quotas, season lengths and bag limits. These are made with recommendations from wildlife and fisheries researchers within the MDNR, outside research institutions, including some of Michigan’s 15 public universities, and stakeholders. As of 2016 (Public Act 382), the NRC is authorized to designate species as “game animals” and establish the first open hunting season for these animals. This allows the commission to further incorporate scientific research into the responsible management of these species.

All regulations are first proposed to the NRC through an order. Each order is an official addition to the state Wildlife Conservation Order, which contains a complete listing of all regulations and legal descriptions about sportfish and wildlife in Michigan. All orders are offered before a public forum at each NRC meeting. These are listed online on the commission’s monthly agenda as either “for information” or “for action.” It often takes two or three NRC meetings for an order to move through the information process, which includes an opportunity for public members to weigh in. During this time, many experts and scientists will also testify to provide the NRC with the best available knowledge on the outcome of their vote. Orders can be passed by a simple majority of the commission after being posted “for action.” All regulations, including the length of many of our hunting seasons, fishing license quotas and the fine print of hunting and fishing digests, are decided by the NRC through this process.
The NRC conducts monthly public meetings throughout the state of Michigan, and locations will range from East Lansing to Marquette in 2019. All of these meetings are open to the public to attend and make comments on the business of the NRC. If you cannot attend in person, each meeting is also streamed live online by MUCC via Facebook Live.

Like all other bodies of government, the commission is subject to various checks and balances by the other branches. Commissioners are appointed by the governor (executive) with the advice and consideration of the state Senate (legislative) in a process similar to the nomination of judges. Likewise, the actions of the NRC itself can be checked by the actions of the state legislature or by ballot initiatives. The MDNR is checked by the commission, as the orders of the NRC are directives for the department, but the MDNR can provide information and advice to the NRC for these orders.

All of this is to say, at the very least, that policy-making is complicated. Wildlife policy-making is especially complicated because it requires a combination of ecological science, complex economic systems, administrative experience and knowledge of state politicking. However, this cannot and should not discourage us as citizens who care about the natural resources of this great state. Conservationists have engaged themselves in this process because it is fundamental to the places, species and heritage that we love.

I hope that this article has given you a better understanding of the NRC and that you will continue reading this series in the next issues to learn more about the role of the MDNR and the state legislature in this process. MUCC works closely with all three of these institutions to conserve, protect and enhance Michigan’s natural resources and outdoor heritage. Will you join us?