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MEC boosts capacity at Capitol

MEC is proud to announce that we’ve hired Sean Hammond to strengthen our team of policy experts at the state Capitol.

Sean Hammond (center) introduced at MEC's Legislative Breakfast

As Deputy Policy Director, Hammond will help MEC build and maintain relationships with lawmakers, stay abreast of new bills and legislative committee activities, and keep our member groups informed about developments at the Capitol. Since joining our staff in January, he has met with dozens of state lawmakers to introduce himself and update them on MEC’s policy priorities. He’s also built new tools that will help our staff members work together to respond quickly and effectively to environmental legislation.

A native of Potterville, Mich., Hammond comes to MEC with experience working in the Legislature and state agencies. Most recently, he held a legal externship with Michigan’s Senate Majority Policy Office, where he provided Republican lawmakers with policy analysis and legal memos on proposed legislation.

Hammond also has interned with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the office of Attorney General Bill Schuette and with state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), who was then serving in the House.

“Sean adds an important voice and viewpoint to the MEC team,” said Chris Kolb, MEC president. “Having him on board puts us in a great position to chalk up some important wins on key environmental issues affecting Michigan. His skills and experience will be particularly helpful in this new legislative term, when water protection, clean energy and public land management will be front-and-center topics at the Capitol.”

Hammond is a 2014 graduate of the Michigan State University College of Law. He graduated with honors from Saginaw Valley State University in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and minors in political science and chemistry.

“I really admire MEC’s solutions-oriented approach to public policy and the group’s vision for the kind of state Michigan can be,” Hammond said. “It’s exciting to be part of such a well-respected team, and I look forward to finding common ground with policymakers to protect public health and preserve the natural resources that make our state so special.”

Hammond lives in East Lansing and spends his off-work hours preparing for two important events: He’s studying for the state bar exam, and is planning an October wedding to fiancée Jess Averill, who is legislative director for Sen. Jones.

Welcome aboard, Sean!

Transportation funding: How’d we get here?

The package of transportation-funding bills Gov. Snyder signed  earlier this month sets the stage for a ballot initiative with high stakes for drivers, transit riders and Michigan’s economy.

Voters in May will have their say on a proposed 1 percent increase in the state sales tax. Along with $300 million per year in new school funding, the proposal would raise about $1.2 billion a year for roads and at least $107 million annually for the Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which supports maintenance and upgrades to public transit and passenger rail. If approved, it would be the state’s first structural increase in funding for public transportation since 1987.

Like many Michiganders, we would have preferred a full solution from the Legislature, rather than facing the added cost, delay and uncertainty a ballot initiative adds to the process. But a ballot drive is what we’ve got, and MEC fully supports its passage.

In the run-up to the May vote, we’ll use this blog to take a close look at Michigan’s transportation system and to make our case that supporting that system in its entirety—not just roads and bridges—is essential to our state’s quality of life and economic competitiveness.

In this first installment of an occasional series, we’ll explore how Michigan arrived at such a desperate need for new transportation funding, and show we’re far from alone in that need.

How we got here

It only takes a few minutes behind the wheel on most Michigan roads to see how badly we need new transportation revenue. (Drive down Pine St. in Lansing from MEC’s offices to I-496. We dare you.)

What’s going on here? Why have the roads gotten so bad? Read more

Gov. Snyder stands up for biodiversity. Help us say thanks!

Gov. Rick Snyder today took a stand for conservation and good science by vetoing Senate Bill 78, which would have blocked state agencies from designating land to protect biodiversity.

It takes guts to wield the veto pen, and the governor deserves heartfelt thanks for his leadership from everyone who enjoys our state’s great outdoors.

Please take a moment to call the governor’s office to express your support for his decision.

Call the governor’s office: (517) 373-3400.

Send him a good old-fashioned letter:

Gov. Rick Snyder
P.O. Box 30013
Lansing, MI 48909

MEC President Chris Kolb signaled the veto’s importance for future Michiganders’ conservation heritage in a press release applauding Gov. Snyder’s decision.

“Biodiversity means healthy, functioning ecosystems and productive, resilient forests,” Kolb said. “I’m glad the governor has made sure Michigan’s professional resource managers are able to protect biodiversity and all its benefits for future generations.

“Gov. Snyder’s decision today shows a respect for and understanding of science, and honors Michigan’s heritage as a conservation leader,” he added.

In a letter to the Senate explaining his decision, the governor said the bill “causes confusion and inconsistencies and could make it more difficult to sustainably manage Michigan’s Public forests and world class natural resources to meet the changing needs of current and future generations.”

By vetoing the bill, the governor sided with 133 scientists from Michigan universities who sent him a letter highlighting biodiversity’s importance for healthy ecosystems.

Thank you, Gov. Snyder!

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Photo courtesy Kyle Rokos via Flickr.

White River Township seeks funding to purchase lakefront land at center of dune debate

One of MEC’s most-read blog posts was a 2013 analysis that pointed out serious flaws in—and helped build the opposition needed to block—a controversial proposal to develop a road through a public dune preserve on the Lake Michigan coast.

If a new fundraising effort succeeds, the piece of private lakefront property at the center of that debate could soon be open for public enjoyment.

Public attention turned to the two-acre parcel when a developer proposed building a home on the property with an access road through the White River Township Barrier Dunes Sanctuary. The proposal represented the first test of a 2012 law that gutted key provisions of Michigan’s Critical Dunes Act.

Thankfully, the Department of Environmental Quality rejected the proposal from Bro G Land Company, echoing MEC’s arguments that what the proposal called a driveway was, by the state’s definition, clearly a road—one that would have fundamentally changed the scenic character of a public sanctuary carefully preserved and managed by thoughtful leaders.

Following the permit denial, Bro G filed a lawsuit against the township seeking a judgment that it had the right to build the road. That suit ended last month in a settlement that gives White Lake Township 18 months to purchase the property for $900,000. Read more

MEC turns focus forward with new policy agenda

Onward!

With an intense lame-duck session in the rearview, MEC’s focus has turned toward a new legislative cycle and the policies we’ll pursue for a stronger economy, cleaner environment and higher quality of life in Michigan.

Today we released a proactive policy agenda for the next couple of years—one that reflects input we gathered from MEC member groups over the past several months. It includes our targeted outcomes across a broad range of issue areas, from protecting our water resources and iconic wild places to accelerating our state’s transition to a clean-energy economy, building a modern transportation system and ending lead poisoning in Michigan.

“This is about realizing our state’s promise as a great place to live,” said MEC President Chris Kolb in our press release announcing the agenda. “We’re at the center of the world’s greatest freshwater resource, we have unmatched manufacturing know-how and we offer outdoor experiences you can’t find anywhere else. These policies will leverage Michigan’s unique assets to create new opportunities and a higher quality of life for Michiganders. They’ll also help keep more of our college graduates here and signal to educated workers elsewhere that Michigan values healthy, thriving communities and a clean environment.”

You can read the press release here, or click here to view the full list of policy priorities.

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Photo courtesy Brian via Flickr.

Lame duck update: The Ugly, the Good and the Bad

With Michigan’s lame duck session in full swing, we thought we’d update Michigan Distilled readers on what has been a very…interesting—yes, we’ll go with interesting—week at the Capitol.

The title of a particular Spaghetti Western film provides a useful way to sort out recent goings-on in Lansing. But one bill moving through the Legislature is so vile, odious and abhorrent that, with apologies to Sergio Leone, we have to start there.

And so, here’s a roundup of this week’s environmental legislation: The Ugly, the Good and the Bad.

Ugly

There’s bad legislation, and then there’s House Bill 5205, which that chamber approved Thursday. Introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, a Republican from Lawton, this irresponsible bill would amend Michigan’s clean energy law, changing the definition of “renewable” to include old tires, railroad ties and other hazardous waste.

Calling dirty, nonrenewable materials clean and renewable would be laughable, but the bill has advanced too far to be funny, and its potential effects on the health of Michigan residents are no joke. Railroad ties, for example, contain dioxins and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer. Read more

MEC, ZWD urge lawmakers to send waste-to-energy bill to the trash heap

Update 2: The Senate did not take up HB 5205 before the end of the legislative session, so the bill is dead (for now). Thanks to everyone who spoke out against this bad legislation and in support of real renewable energy!

Update: The House has approved HB 5205. Please join MEC in urging your senator to stop this irresponsible bill from moving any further.

The Michigan Environmental Council and Zero Waste Detroit are urging lawmakers to vote down legislation approved by a House committee that would expand the state’s definition of renewable energy to include the burning of hazardous waste, warning that it would harm the health of Michigan residents and hobble the state’s growing clean-energy industry.

House Bill 5205, introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and approved this week by the House Energy and Technology Committee he chairs, would amend the 2008 Michigan law that requires utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. It would put scrap tires, plastics and hazardous materials in the same category as legitimate clean-energy technologies like wind and solar power.

The bill draws its list of fuels that should be considered renewable from a federal administrative rule that has nothing to do with renewable energy. In fact, the rule concerns how the Clean Air Act should be applied to facilities that burn waste materials, including hazardous waste with potentially toxic air emissions.

An amendment to the bill removed petroleum coke—an oil-refining byproduct—from the list of fuels that would be considered renewable. And some of the included materials, such as byproducts from pulp and paper mills, already were considered renewable fuels under the 2008 law. But the bill would add dirty fuels that create serious public health risks when burned. For example, it could include railroad ties, which contain dioxins and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer, and demolition waste including wood coated in lead-based paint. Read more

Celebrate Michigan wildlife December 9!

The following is reprinted from a Michigan Department of Natural Resources press release issued last December. MEC encourages all Michiganders to support wildlife conservation by making a donation to the nongame fund and attending the DNR’s Dec. 9 gala dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Michigan’s Endangered Species Act. Read our recent blog post for more information on the dinner and nongame wildlife management in Michigan.

This is the time of year when charities and other nonprofit organizations remind citizens that they can lower their tax bills by donating to these organizations. The Department of Natural Resources can say the same: contributions to Michigan’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund are tax-deductible and the fund is what provides state officials with the money to manage the 80 percent of wildlife species in this state that are not hunted or trapped. (Game species are managed with revenue from license sales.)

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund has changed in several ways since its inception in 1983, though the three main goals remain the same:

• To restore populations of endangered species;
• To maintain healthy populations of animals and plants; and
• To promote — through education and first-hand opportunities to experience wildlife — appreciation for and awareness of Michigan’s diverse wildlife.

When it was first created, the nongame fund raised money through a check-off on the state income tax return. The check-off was discontinued in the 1990s when the fund reached $6 million. The fund continues to generate revenue from interest on the balance, by voluntary contributions, and, of course, the purchase of “Conserve Wildlife Habitat” license plates (Look for the Loon!).

Since its beginning, the Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund has raised some $9.5 million to support conservation. Read more

Author challenges environmental groups to reimagine black relationship with nature

There’s plenty of evidence that American popular culture takes an off-kilter view of who cares about the environment and belongs in the outdoors. On the first night of MEC’s recent annual meeting in northern Michigan, members gathered around a stone fireplace in a cozy riverside lodge surrounded by woods to explore that concept with geographer and author Carolyn Finney.

During Finney’s informal evening discussion and reading, she shared selections from her new book, “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” She also read from “Ode to New York: A Performance Piece,” which she wrote in answer to the question, “How is nature critical to a 21st century urban ethic?” It reads, in part:

We, the human animal, are one of the faces of nature and the city is our home place where we get to build, experiment, blend and grow…Get down, put your ear on the ground. Together with the sound of the subway and cars and footsteps of hundreds of people marching in tune to their faith and their hope, you can hear the soil, the water, the roots of the trees, the insects, the plants, the energy bursting forth, connecting us to ourselves and the places in which we live.

The lodge itself—tucked out of the way in the heart of the Manistee National Forest—provided the perfect setting for the open, intense and challenging discussion that followed. It’s a haven for fly fishers and kayakers, and a good jumping-off point for other Pure Michigan adventures like backpacking, trail running and birdwatching.Carolyn Finney fireside

Such natural places, Finney suggests, are too commonly seen as a “white” domain. In reality, African Americans have their own long history of connection to natural places, such as Idlewild, the black resort just down the road from the lodge. The black experience of nature, and the American legacy of racism and exclusion that long defined it, provides groups like MEC with fertile ground to broaden the conversation about where nature is found and who cherishes it—and by extension, what voices are valued in the environmental movement itself.

“We talk about changing our relationship to nature,” Finney said, “but first we need to change our relationship to each other.” Read more

DNR dinner spotlights wildlife funding gap

The numbers confirm what we Michiganders know from experience: We love wildlife. Michigan’s 3.2 million wildlife watchers add $1.2 billion to the state economy every year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

In fact, while hunting and fishing are cornerstones of our state’s outdoor heritage and recreation economy, far more residents pursue wildlife with binoculars or camera than with hook or bullet. A 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 39 percent of Michigan residents watched wildlife, compared to 21 percent who hunted or fished.

The DNR aims to tap into that enthusiasm with a Dec. 9 dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Michigan’s Endangered Species Act. The law has been instrumental in protecting and recovering rare species such as the peregrine falcon and Kirtland’s warbler.

More than just a celebration, DNR officials hope the dinner will provide critical funding for the state’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, which supports management of species that aren’t hunted, trapped or fished, but form the vast majority of Michigan’s web of life. Tickets are $100, with all proceeds benefiting the fund. (Seating is limited, so get your tickets today!)

Karner blue butterfly

Karner blue butterfly.

Many residents may be surprised to learn that, while 80 percent of Michigan species aren’t hunted or trapped, nongame species receive only five percent of the DNR’s wildlife management budget. In 2013, state funding to manage nongame wildlife totaled just under $472,000. (State nongame dollars also help leverage about $1 million a year in federal grants to Michigan.) By comparison, turkey management received $754,000 in state funding, and the Deer Range Improvement Program alone netted nearly $1.5 million. Read more