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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Status of Wild Michigan

This is the first of six articles. 
The Michigan Wildlife Conservancy has been working for 30 years to restore our state’s wildlife.  While we can be proud of the hundreds of worthwhile projects completed with our partners and cooperators, the question arises: How have Michigan’s natural resources fared overall during the last three decades?  Is conservation winning, or do we have much more work to do?
Land Use
When the Wildlife Conservancy was formed in 1982, there were new laws in place to keep urban sprawl -- that phenomenon characterized by massive subdivisions, strip malls, industrial parks, and snarled traffic where farms, woods and wildlife used to be -- out of important wetlands and floodplains.  But over the next ten years, Michigan lost 7.8 percent of its farmland acreage, and biologists became increasingly aware that “leap-frog” development was making remaining habitat too fragmented to support certain species.  
Particularly in Southeast Michigan, but also in the Grand Rapids and Traverse City areas, urban sprawl was not simply the inevitable result of population growth.  Local governments were eager to extend roads, sewer lines and other utilities to far-flung developments.  And zoning rules – ironically enacted to avoid land use conflicts and boost the quality of life – required large building lots and low density developments, thereby bringing in fewer people to areas zoned for residential use and minimizing open space.  
The Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act of 1974 provides tax credits to farmers who give up development rights.  By 2000, about 40 percent of Michigan’s farmland was enrolled in the program, but today, very little of that land is in areas where development pressures are intense.  The tax breaks have largely gone to farmers who were not going to sell to developers anyway.  And where urban sprawl is a real threat, the program has not offered enough money to individual farmers to persuade them to keep their land in agriculture.
In 2001, the final report of the Michigan Land Resource Project predicted that between the years 2000-2040, there would be:  a 17 percent reduction in agricultural land, a 178 percent increase in “built” land, an 8 percent drop in private forestland, a decrease of 10 percent in wetland acreage and a 24 percent loss in other vegetation.  The report also predicted that “land available for hunting will dramatically decrease, while ‘edge’ species such as white-tailed deer will continue to increase in numbers.”
The recent economic downturn has slowed growth in general, so the report’s predicted tripling of the amount of built land is questionable.  But the trends are not.  Habitat fragmentation is still considered one of Southern Michigan’s most serious wildlife management concerns.  Some tough choices must be made if Michigan is to preserve the character of our 36 million acres for future generations.
Michigan is one of only two states that tax land according to its most valuable use rather than its existing use.  Farmland and open space thus sometimes get taxed according to their potential value for housing or commercial development.  That puts real pressure on landowners on the urban fringe to sell sooner, rather than later, and that type of taxing should be eliminated.
Michigan recently started a program to purchase development rights, ironically using penalties and other funds paid back to the Farmland and Open Space Preservation Program by landowners who wanted out.  But the amount of cash generated has been minimal in comparison to the interest by landowners.
Michigan now has more than 40 private-sector conservancies that acquire and hold conservation easements that preserve open space.  Most focus on lands with unique resources such as rare plant or animal species, or scenic views.  
Such programs for purchase of development rights need to be better funded, and local governments need to stop subsidizing road, sewer, and water projects that encourage developments in outlying areas.  Incentive-driven programs of tax credits, low interest mortgages, and school modernization funding can and should be used to promote new development in urban areas.  The Michigan Land Use Institute has rightly called for a program which controls the way taxpayer’s money is spent rather than placing severe restrictions on developers and formulating complex land use regulations. 
Next article will appear on October 1, 2012.

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