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Here’s how we would spend $1 billion

You’ve likely heard that Michigan’s year-end financial housekeeping led to the happy conclusion that the state has a projected surplus of $971 million for the next budget year.

As lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder outline their 2015 budget proposals—and with the governor preparing to give his State of the State address tonight—there’s a lot of debate in Lansing about what the state should do with that money.

One Republican proposal would cut the personal income tax rate from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent over four years. Since the money came from taxpayers like you and me, the logic goes, we should get it back in the form of tax relief. But as the Associated Press reported, the proposal would lead to only a $45 reduction in the average person’s tax bill in the first year. The surplus doesn’t look so big when it’s spread that thin.

But invested in the right programs, $971 million is a lot of cash that can create lasting benefits for Michigan.

And so, we humbly submit to the state’s leaders the Michigan Environmental Council’s proposal for several smart ways to invest the surplus. Readers, please share your ideas in the comments below. And to the Legislature and the Snyder administration: Let’s talk! Read more

100 Michigan tourist attractions: How many have you visited?

Trivia time! This quiz, gauging how many Michigan tourist attractions you’ve visited, is making the rounds on the intertubes this week. Our communications director scored a 69, then suffered the slings and arrows of lesser Michiganders who complained bitterly of the unfairness of it all.

Well, we tend to agree. Each of Detroit’s three casinos earn a point, while landmarks like Tahquamenon Falls and Beaver Island aren’t included? And no South Manitou Island or Seashell City? How about the Cross in the Woods? What’s your score? And what key spots were overlooked? Remember, it’s for fun. As long as you don’t beat our score.


The curious, quiet project to widen seven miles of U.S. 23 between A2 and I-96

The effects of additional stormwater runoff and other environmental impacts should be evaluated as part of the proposed highway widening.

It’s a most curious project, and a quiet one so far: The Michigan Department of Transportation wants to widen 7.3 miles of road shoulder along U.S. 23 near Ann Arbor. The ostensible goal is to make it safer and more comfortable for motorists.

We disagree. The proposed Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) project is much more than a benign “shoulder widening.” It is actually the addition of an extra lane with the potential to degrade nearby lakes and wetlands, impact air quality, create unsafe driving conditions and possibly worsen the congestion it is designed to alleviate.

Instead of trying to squeeze another too-narrow lane onto a high-speed freeway, MEC believes MDOT should be spending time and money getting commuter rail service – the so-called WALLY line between Ann Arbor and Howell – underway.

So MEC has formally asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for a more thorough review of the plan.  MDOT, by attempting to classify the endeavor as a series of multiple, smallish projects, has tried to skirt the environmental reviews that should be conducted.  It’s no small matter. We’re talking about 1.6 million square feet of new impervious pavement creating entirely new traffic patterns for drivers between Brighton and Ann Arbor.

If you’re into the details, our letter to MDOT is available here. You can get involved by writing your own letter, based on this draft template we’ve put together (it will ask you to open a Word document); or by attending the Dec. 12 public meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Northfield Township Hall, 8350 Main St., Suite A, Whitmore Lake.


Michigan nonprofit goes to bat on behalf of incredible pollinators, mosquito killers

Big Brown bat

When thousands of bats overran the campus of Maryville College in Tennessee earlier this fall, the college needed help. Fast.

It was Michigan to the rescue. More precisely, experts from the internationally renowned Organization for Bat Conservation (OBC) based at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills.

Maryville’s plague of Big Brown bats was unleashed after the college tore down their home – the rafters of an iconic bell tower on a campus building. “They displaced them humanely, but the bats didn’t go far,” said OBC Executive Director Rob Mies. “So they were getting into buildings, flying around in classrooms ….” Even Bluegrass musician Ricky Skaggs – performing on campus – contended with bats swooping through the stage spotlights during his show.

Mies executed an emergency relocation of the bats – providing temporary bat house homes. For a long-term solution, he will help the college build a clone of the original rafters that the bats will move into spring 2014.

Rob Mies

It’s all part the job for the little Michigan nonprofit that can, which travels across the globe to research, educate and protect the planet’s only flying mammals. Rob, his wife Eva Meade, and a band of loyal staffers and volunteers conduct educational programs, work with national and international conservation initiatives, and strive to protect bats from threats like the invasive white-nose syndrome fungus and poorly sited wind turbines. Rob has brought bats to visit Ellen Degeneres, Martha Stewart, Conan O’Brien, and shows from National Geographic specials to FOX Detroit television.  Hundreds of thousands of school kids, civic groups, and educators from dozens of states and nations have been introduced to bats through OBC’s work.

And then there’s the Bat Zone – hosting live programs on the Cranbrook campus with more than 100 rescued and injured bats including big brown bats, dog-faced fruit bats, straw-colored fruit bats, endangered golden (also known as Rodrigues) flying foxes, Malayan flying foxes (the largest bats in the world, with 6 foot wingspans), Egyptian fruit bats, short-tailed fruit bats, Jamaican fruit bats, Indian flying foxes, and vampire bats.

All this effort is not just for the bats’ sake. And not just because they are adorable (well, yes they are actually!)

Bats provide irreplaceable free labor for farmers and mosquito haters. They pollinate crops and plants and eat up to 5,000 mosquitoes and other insects nightly per bat! That displaces billions of dollars worth of toxic pesticides that might otherwise be used to control the bugs, numerous analyses have concluded. And the saliva of the vampire bat contains a powerful drug that is used for the treatment of blood-clotting diseases!

The OBC works tirelessly to spread these positive messages about bats to a public that too often buys into the many myths about the dangers of these fascinating creatures. At the same time, the observations and data gathered from the Organization for Bat Conservation is helping add to a growing body of research on bats.

Visiting researchers study bat behavior, social interactions, and how bats communicate, play, and react to stimuli. They even play music for the captive bats. “They react differently depending on the music,” explained one volunteer. “Country music, the Beatles … they have distinctly different reactions.”

For more information or to plan a visit to this unique and exciting Michigan organization, go here, or call (248) 645-3232.


Bat Facts

  •   There are 1,293 identified bat species worldwide
  •   Nine species live in Michigan
  • One bat can eat between 2,000 and 5,000 insects nightly
  • Agave plants – from which we get tequila – are pollinated almost exclusively by long-nosed bats.
  • Bats are quite clean, and groom themselves like cats do
  • Bats do not: Drink human blood, get tangled in hair or attack people
  • They are the only mammals that fly
  • Most bats live 20 years
  • Vampire bats only live in Mexico, Central and South America
  • Very few bats contract rabies
  • Most bat populations have declined in the last 20 years


Report: Warming climate threatens deer camp tradition

This is a favorite time of year for many Michiganders: Deer season is in full swing. One MEC staffer has a freezer newly full of nutritious, local venison, while another keeps shaking his head and muttering about a big buck that trotted close but didn’t offer a clean shot.

Deer camp is a deep tradition here in Michigan, a time for new generations to learn about the outdoors and hear old stories that get better with each retelling.

It’s big business, too, particularly for rural areas Up North. Deer season draws in some 20,000 out-of-state hunters, directly supports 5,300 jobs and contributes more than $500 million to Michigan’s annual economy, according to the DNR.

That’s why a report released last week by the National Wildlife Federation ought to turn some stomachs. It lays out the risks that a changing climate poses to big game animals such as pronghorn, caribou and bighorn sheep as well as Michigan species like white-tailed deer, elk, moose and black bear. Read more

Paying it forward: WMEAC’s 45th anniversary a time to thank them, and one former stranger!

One night in the late 1980s I wandered unannounced into Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church for a meeting of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC). I had a vague idea that I’d like to write something about “The Environment” for the Grand Rapids-based chain of weekly newspapers I was working for, and an “environmental council” seemed a likely spot to find such a story. Beyond that, I was as clueless as a 24-year-old could be.

I remember following little of the discussion that evening. It was complicated. And fascinating. When the meeting adjourned I trudged up to Julie Stoneman – a WMEAC staffer at the time – and asked her to explain something.

I cannot remember the topic. Combined sewer overflows maybe? Nor how long Julie spent patiently outlining the rudimentary facts of the issue at hand. But it seemed like hours, and may well have been.  Everyone was gone when we were done. I departed with two new things: a good story, and an appreciation of the kindness, patience and passion of a stranger who went out of her way to help out a ridiculously uninformed cub reporter.

WMEAC – and Julie – became a go-to source for my environmental work for the next several years. They laid the foundation for my interest in environmental reporting and, later, advocacy.

Julie would move on to work at MEC and in the state’s land conservancy community, most recently as associate director for Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy.  She emailed me this week, asking a small favor. Would I use MEC’s social media to publicize WMEAC’s 45th anniversary celebration event next week Tuesday in Grand Rapids?

I will. Because WMEAC (an “original six” MEC member group) does great work. And because Julie asked me.

This world is full of pithy quotations and anecdotes about how we ought to be nicer, more generous and friendlier – because you never know when a small kindness will be paid forward exponentially. If Julie had been rushed and short with me that evening it might not have mattered. I may have become an environmental reporter and communicator anyway.

But maybe, just maybe, a stranger in the right time at the right place with the right attitude changed my career path. And for that possibility, I am grateful to Julie and to WMEAC.

So, please consider joining or supporting WMEAC as it turns 45. Because you never know when your support might be paid forward.


Lessons from Chicago for those working to close Detroit incinerator: Never, ever, ever give up!

Detroit's incinerator and a nearby neighborhood

Kim Wasserman was terrified as she rushed to the emergency room with her 3-month-old baby gasping for air. The diagnosis – an asthma attack triggered by environmental pollution –started a chain of events that spurred Wasserman to lead the charge to close two dirty, aging coal-fired power plants in her neighborhood.

Much of the pollution that led to the asthma attack came from the Fisk and Crawford power plants in her Little Village neighborhood in Chicago. The incident kicked the community organizer into high gear, and she went to war.

Fourteen years later in 2012 – under unrelenting pressure from the community, tough new pollution control rules and increasingly affordable competition from cleaner energy sources – the plants shut down. Chicago is now a coal-free city.

Wasserman was the inspiring keynote speaker at the “Coal to Clean Energy” conference I attended last week in the Windy City.  Her long, dogged and ultimately successful fight was fraught with dead-ends, betrayal, infighting, disintegrating coalitions and failures. Her Odyssey is a valuable lesson for activists everywhere who seek transformative change: Be in it for the long haul and keep your eyes on the finish line!

Those lessons hold promise for health and clean energy advocates in Detroit who are engaged in a years-long fight to shutter  the world’s largest municipal waste incinerator, which continues to operate despite overwhelming evidence that:

  1. It is a public health menace, disrupting, impairing and shortening the lives of the city’s families – many of whom lack the means to move to a safer neighborhood or the clout to gain fairness from the political system. It is one of many reasons that children in Detroit are hospitalized with asthma at a rate three times the state average.
  2. There are healthier ways to manage the city’s waste stream that create good jobs and produce better economic value.

MEC is part of the Zero Waste Detroit coalition that is leading the effort to make a safer and more attractive Detroit. We’re a relative newcomer to this game, even though we’ve been at it for years. Many of our ZWD allies have lived with the incinerator’s fallout for decades. They’ve endured the same ups and downs that Wasserman did in Chicago – inept city leadership, indifferent environmental regulators, coalition politics and treachery, unkept promises, and halting progress followed by demoralizing setbacks.

But they – and we – are still at it. And we will be until this toxic, aging legacy of yesteryear no longer is a daily threat to the community it purports to serve, and stops being a financial drain on a city that can ill afford it.

Maybe 2014 will be the year justice prevails. Or maybe it’ll take another decade. If it seems hopeless, it’s not. Just ask Kim Wasserman.


Trick, not treat: ‘Guaranteed bankruptcy’ yard waste bill is this week’s scare

In a twisted nod to Halloween hijinks, the Michigan Senate’s Energy & Technology Committee today takes up a piece of legislation, SB 314, that surely is no treat.

The “guaranteed bankruptcy” bill that would put Michigan composting operations out of business by reversing the ban on yard waste in landfills is up for a hearing at 1 p.m. We’ve explained why this bill is terrible and regressive public policy here. We’ll be telling legislators that, and you can too by contacting the committee members and telling them that we prefer value-added, job-creating Michigan products (compost) over dumping more crap in our landfills.


National Park Service mulls Isle Royale wolf rescue as sickly handful hang on

The heartbreaking plight of Isle Royale wolves was chronicled in Silence of the Wolves, a terrific package of stories published this weekend by Lansing State Journal writer Louise Knott Ahern.

It made me recall – you’ll see why if you read a little further – walking to the middle of a frozen Torch Lake in the early 1980s to fire Jerry’s* guns randomly down the lake lengthwise. We couldn’t get away with that today  — there are too many uppity year-rounders with winterized cottages.  But the bigger reason is that Torch Lake hardly ever freezes over any more like it used to when I was young(er).

Neither does Grand Traverse Bay, or many other parts of the Great Lakes, research has shown.

And, neither does the Lake Superior ice bridge between Isle Royale National Park and the mainland. In fact, Superior has warmed 6 degrees Fahrenheit in three decades. That’s a scary trend that’s sobering not only on a professional level, but a personal one: It’s insulting to hardy Michiganders when any tourist with a Speedo can swim in Superior without getting an ice cream headache.

That warming is why the island’s world-renowned study of the moose/wolf predator/prey relationship is almost done for. Too much inbreeding among the island’s isolated wolfpack has put them on the brink. No ice bridge, no new wolves, no new genetics. Normally, that’d just be tough luck for Rolf Peterson and his inexhaustible band of researchers. National Park Service policy says don’t mess with Mother Nature, no matter how much it hurts.

But here’s the rub: Climate change – primarily caused by manmade emissions of greenhouse gasses – is the primary cause for the lack of ice and, therefore, the genetic collapse of the island’s wolves. The Park Service’s hands-off policy has wiggle room to intervene when species are endangered, or suffering due to the direct actions of humans. And so a vigorous debate is ongoing about whether new wolves should be brought in to rescue the island’s wolves.

I’ve been to Isle Royale on three occasions – as a teenage YMCA camper in the late 1970s; with my wife and children in the 1990s; and with an environmental journalism fellowship group in 2005. On that last trip, Peterson pitched his tent next to mine for two nights — a celebrity encounter of sorts by my standards.  Peterson wants an exception to the Park Service policy to step in and repopulate Isle Royale’s wolves. I am by no means speaking on behalf of MEC when I say, If it’s good enough for Rolf, it’s good enough for me.

I’ll be rooting for the wolves. For a hands-on decision from the Park Service. And, perhaps for one last ice bridge to the mainland before Superior sadly becomes bathwater.

*A pseudonym. “Jerry” has a respectable job, a reputation to uphold, and fortunately Facebook photos did not exist in 1982.




Defining moments: Salmon, sausage and strategy at MEC’s membership meeting

From left: Jeff Cranson, John Truscott, Deb Muchmore and Dave Waymire.

There were a number of potential defining moments from MEC’s overnight membership meeting last week:

Peter Sinclair’s sobering presentation on disappearing Arctic ice.

— The all-star panel of communications and messaging experts (John Truscott, Deb Muchmore, Dave Waymire and Jeff Cranson) telling member groups that relationships matter – so keep your friends close and your opponents closer!

— State Rep. Wayne Schmidt, explaining how sausage is made in the legislature.

— Salmon, spawning everywhere in the Pere Marquette River flowing through the Barothy Lodge grounds. And Michigan Trout Unlimited’s Dr. Bryan Burroughs’ riverside field trip.

But for me, this was the key moment:

The all-star panel had just counseled the audience to nurture alliances with unlikely bedfellows.  Environmentalists and conservationists need talk to more than just ourselves.  We must broaden outreach to the business community, conservatives, faith groups and other nontraditional allies if we’re to impact on the political and policy process.

This was good advice, offered by people (Muchmore and Truscott, particularly) who represent companies, industries and groups that we often lock horns with at the state Capitol. In essence, they were advising us on how to beat their clients! Or, perhaps, work better with them, rather than always against.

When Q&A time arrived, Dr. Grenetta Thomassey of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council said her organization works closely with the business and conservative communities in their area – lots of partnerships, shared goals and “agreeing to disagree” on issues where they share no common ground.

“We’re doing everything you say. But when we go to Lansing and talk to our elected officials,” she said, “it’s like a different world. They shut us down. They don’t seem to care that we’re working so inclusively with so many of their friends and supporters back in the district. How can we change that?” (paraphrasing here)

“Do you bring those people with you when you visit Lansing?” asked PR guru Waymire.

Thomassey paused. Blinked. “No. But I guess we should!”

Heads nodded all around, and you could see the light bulbs go off.

Thomassey said later that she had planned to visit Lansing with Tip of the Mitt’s business allies, dropped the idea temporarily over logistical hurdles, and then forgot all about it. Until last week.

It encapsulated for me the value that MEC’s 60-plus member organizations get for being part of the state’s largest and most successful environmental coalition. We’re the proxy for small member organizations that don’t have the staff or time to keep track of shenanigans at the State Capitol. But we’re also a convener of people, a clearinghouse for timely information and a conduit for the best and most effective practices in influencing policies affecting Michigan’s natural resources. There is strength in numbers, and in diversity.

Waymire’s tip – have your allies and people who your elected officials can’t ignore at your side – was not groundbreaking. But it was important. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside looking in to see what should be obvious.

When Thomassey knocks on a legislator’s door with business owners and conservative allies at her side, her organization’s voice will resonate with new vitality and impact. When dozens, or hundreds, of small strategies like this are added up it makes a difference. And that’s what we’re all about.