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Anti-biodiversity SB 78: Michigan scientists (133 of ‘em!) poised to tell Gov. Snyder it is “against the best advice” of state’s academic experts

Michigan Forest

The good news is the Michigan Legislature is on summer recess.

Even better news; they left without taking up SB 78, legislation that would redefine the term “biodiversity” in state law and prohibit state agencies from designating public lands to protect biological diversity. (We’ve written extensively about the bill’s flawed premise and terrible consequences, and you can read about it here and here and here.)

But Rep. Andrea Lafontaine, who chairs the House Natural Resources committee, told MEC earlier this year  that she expected to give the bill a hearing prior to legislature’s summer recess. Due to a busy close of session and – we’d like to think — lots of letters and calls to her office, the bill was not brought before the committee.

But we have every reason to believe the bill, which already passed the full Senate, is still likely to reappear. And when it does, the environmental and conservation communities need to be ready to stand in opposition.

University of Michigan School of Natural Resources Professor Bradley Cardinale PhD, whose work focuses on the challenges of protecting biodiversity, has been working to point out the far-reaching ramifications of the bill. He, and 133 other PhD-level professors representing 13 Michigan universities, have signed this letter urging Gov. Rick Snyder to veto SB 78 should it reach his desk. Signing SB 78, they agree, would be a significant setback for the scientific management of state lands – a decades-old philosophy that has successfully restored Michigan’s once–decimated forests, protected its freshwater lakes and streams, and done a reasonable job of balancing the needs of multiple constituencies who use state lands for diverse activities.

We sat down with Professor Cardinale to ask him a few questions about the professors’ letter and the effects SB 78 would have on Michigan conservation.


— Tell us about your letter to the Governor. And you have not yet sent it, is that right? When will you?

Very simply, this letter says that SB 78 is scientifically unsound.  People have objected to SB 78 for a whole variety of reasons.  The 133 scientists who signed this letter object to SB 78 because it would take away our ability to protect biodiversity in Michigan, and this would jeopardize the health, productivity, and sustainability of Michigan’s public lands.  We have prepared this letter in the event that the House of Representatives passes SB 78 after their summer recess.  At that point, we will submit our letter to Governor Snyder.  If he signs SB 78 into law, he will do so against the best advice of his state’s leading academic scientists.

— At last count, 133 Michigan scientists have signed the letter. Who are they, and what kinds of knowledge and experience do they represent?

All of the individuals who signed this letter are professors who teach and do research at one of 14 Michigan universities.  All have Ph.D.’s and represent fields including ecology, forestry, fisheries and wildlife, economics, and statistics.  Several are Chairs of their respective schools, and some are decorated emeritus professors.  The professors who signed this letter train graduate students to work in our state as foresters, natural resources managers, water quality technicians, or fisheries and wildlife biologists.  Collectively, this group has thousands of years of professional experience, and has published thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles detailing how people impact nature, and how nature impacts people. 

— Why do you think this legislation has generated so much concern within Michigan’s scientific community? What parts are most problematic to you as a scientist?

Many people may not be aware that all renewable natural resources ultimately come from biodiversity.  Without biodiversity, the world could not sustain basic life-support processes such as the production of breathable air or purification of water.  Without biodiversity, you could not sustainably produce food, fiber or wood, and you could not control pests and disease.  Without biodiversity, you would not have the genetic resources needed to develop renewable sources of energy like biofuels, to develop new crops that are resistant to pests or disease, or to develop microbes that can clean up pollution.  Without biodiversity, you wouldn’t have the recreational benefits of hiking, fishing or hunting, the tourism dollars from those who want to spend time enjoying the great outdoors, or the health benefits that people get from nature.

If you doubt these benefits, consider what it would be like to live in Iowa.  Iowa has one of the most abysmal records of biodiversity protection in the U.S., as most of the state has been converted to monocultures of corn.  As a consequence, the state has severe water quality problems, and some of the highest pesticide loads in the world.  I seriously doubt that you have ever heard anyone say they’re looking forward to taking their vacation in ‘Pure Iowa’.

In contrast to Iowa, Michigan is still blessed with an abundance of natural resources that give us a high quality of life.  For example, Michigan is in a unique ecological position as the only state virtually surrounded by one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water supply. Water is our identity, a key component of our quality of life, and a major economic engine in this state.   Water, like all of Michigan’s natural resources, provides people with tangible goods and services that impact their health and prosperity. Many of these benefits are maintained by biodiversity.  So when Michigan’s legislature proposed SB 78, specifically prohibiting us from protecting biodiversity in this state, we felt compelled to speak out about how this will impact Michigan’s future.

— We know many scientists are reticent to get involved in politics. Has this proposed legislation brought some of them out of the shadows? Why?

It has indeed brought many researchers out of the ‘shadows’.  Historically, professors have been hesitant to translate their science into policy recommendations for fear that it might compromise the objectivity of their research, or be viewed as a conflict of interest.  But that perspective is changing as more researchers realize we can no longer afford to sit in the ivory tower and talk to each other.  We need to do more ‘actionable science’ that can solve environmental problems and help people cope with a changing world.  And more scientists are realizing they are in the best position to interpret their research and make recommendations to society on how to use it.

Policies like SB 78 foster the feeling among scientists that we need to speak up more.  SB 78 is so scientifically illiterate and ill-informed that we had no choice but to tell Governor Snyder that this is a terrible idea for Michigan.

— SB 78 supporters like to say there are more than 20 laws or programs that adequately protect management of state lands for biodiversity. Do you think that’s accurate? How might this legislation impact those programs and laws?

I have repeatedly heard Senator Casperson - the sponsor of SB 78 - claim that Michigan has 20 or more laws that protect biodiversity, so we don’t need any more.  His claims are, at best, an exaggeration.  At worst, he is intentionally trying to mislead people into thinking his bill won’t hinder our ability to protect biodiversity.

Certainly, we do have laws in Michigan that help protect biodiversity, and these are complemented by national laws like the Endangered Species Act.  But collectively, these have not done a particularly good job at protecting Michigan’s biological heritage.  Michigan is one of the world’s hotspots for invasive species.  Michigan forests have been severely degraded by pests and disease.  Michigan has more than 60 highly polluted superfund sites.  And we have a long list of imperiled species in this state that are teetering on the edge of extinction.  To suggest we are doing a good job of protecting our natural resources, and don’t need to act further, is just plain silly.

Senator Casperson claims that the intent of his legislation is to stop a specific program — the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR) Living Legacies initiative.  This initiative is a conservation plan that creates a state-wide network of Biological Stewardship Areas (BSAs) intended to protect the diversity of Michigan’s flora and fauna.  Despite abundant documentation to the contrary, Casperson believes BSAs would limit people’s access to public land, and curb economic benefits like logging and mining.

But the bill goes far beyond simply targeting the BSA program. While limiting DNR’s authority to implement BSAs may be Casperson’s intent, SB 78 never once mentions the Living Legacies program, nor does it ever mention BSAs.  Instead, SB 78 changes the definition of conservation, eliminates state authority to conserve biological diversity, and takes away most of the key tools we use to manage state lands in a manner that ensures they are cared for and available to future generations. 

— Where do you think the state should be going in terms of biodiversity, and why is this bill the wrong strategy?— The Michigan DNR has taken a neutral position, saying that they believe they can still cobble together programs that protect biodiversity values and our sustainable forest certifications. That position might make it hard for the Governor to veto the bill if it gets through the House of Representatives. Do you think the DNR should take a stronger stand against the bill? Why?

While I am disappointed with DNR’s silence on SB 78, I understand they must pick-and-choose their battles.  Michigan’s current group of legislators has bombarded the state with everything from repeals of our environmental laws to sales of public land for mining, lumbering, and fracking.  Agencies like the DNR and DEQ are under constant fire from the legislature, and are trying to protect the state’s natural resources on a shrinking budget.   I do not envy their impossible task.   But my hope is that the political climate will soon shift and, as the economy improves, voters will recognize how essential it is to maintain the “Pure Michigan” environment as part of both a quality of life and economic vitality strategy.   Only a century ago, the unchecked desire for economic growth led us to cut down almost every last tree in this state – the economic, environmental and public health consequences were devastating.  The economic bust and environmental degradation that followed emphasized just how important it is to manage our natural resources sustainably.

(Want more? Read the scientists’ letter here)



One Comment
  1. Dennis Sawinska #

    I applaud your opposition to this terrible bill.

    August 5, 2013

Comments are closed.