LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Senate voted Tuesday to curtail state regulators' consideration of biological diversity when designating sections of state forest land, over the objections of environmentalists who said the "anti-science" bill would gut a practice in place for nearly 100 years.
The measure was approved 26-11 along party lines in the Republican-led chamber. It is sponsored by an Upper Peninsula lawmaker and backed by the timber industry. They contend the legislation is needed to prevent large areas of state-owned land from being declared off-limits to logging and motorized recreation, although officials say that is not their intention.
Supporters say they are concerned about a program being developed by the Department of Natural Resources that would create "biodiversity stewardship areas" for the conservation of species and ecosystems. The DNR says some logging still could be allowed in those areas, which also would offer an opportunity for a return of old-growth forests, which all but disappeared during the logging boom of the 1800s.
Critics of the bill said the agency has sought diversity in species of plants and animals while managing and restoring state lands since its founding in 1921.
"Biodiversity is the principle behind successful efforts to restore Michigan's forests after years of clear-cutting," said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. "It has also been used to help recover wildlife populations enough to move them off the endangered species list.
GOP Gov. Rick Snyder is neutral on the legislation, which next will be considered by the Republican-controlled House. Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said biodiversity is important, but the governor does not believe the bill as passed would stand in the state's way.
The measure would order the state to balance its forest management activities with economic concerns. It also would delete "biological diversity" from the DNR's list of forest management duties, eliminate a requirement that the DNR promote restoration in managing forests and erase a prior legislative finding that most losses of biological diversity are the result of human activity.
"When you talk about restoration, it's too open-ended," said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, a former logger and sponsor of the bill, who said some opponents have no idea how much land is already set aside for protection.
When Democrats proposed a failed amendment putting the new stewardship areas into state law, he listed 22 separate designations used to conserve land — including national parks, state parks, wetlands, critical dunes and state wildlife areas.
"We do not need another program," Casperson said.
Warren said removing the finding that most losses of biological diversity are unintended consequences of human activity "has the potential to make Michigan look like a laughingstock to the scientific community around the country."
The state spent years looking for tracts suitable for the "biodiversity stewardship area" designation, beginning in the northern Lower Peninsula. After consulting with interest groups including the forest products industry and environmentalists, the DNR put together a draft plan identifying 678,000 acres that might be suitable.
Officials planned to take public feedback in 2012 and have a final version for the DNR director to approve this spring.
But the draft drew opposition from the timber industry. And now Casperson's bill is sparking outrage in the environmental community, which says its scope would affect much more than the Living Legacies Initiative.
"This is terrible legislation. It undercuts one of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' chief missions — to protect and enhance the diversity and splendor of Michigan's woodlands and forests," Brad Garmon, director of conservation and emerging issues for the Michigan Environmental Council, said in a statement.
The Snyder administration, however, said it does not think the bill prohibits managing state lands for biodiversity.
"Instead, what it does is prohibits designating particular areas as biodiversity preserves through an administrative rule or order," Wurfel said in an email. "That is consistent with state law as it relates to wilderness and many other designations. We currently believe we can work within the bill to accomplish the state's biodiversity goals."
Senate Bill 78: http://1.usa.gov/YLR9Oa
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