TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - A fight is brewing in the Michigan Legislature over management of state forest land, as an Upper Peninsula senator tries to derail a plan aimed mostly at nurturing a diverse mix of animal and plant life.
The Senate Natural Resources, Environment and Great Lakes Committee has scheduled a Thursday hearing on a bill that would prohibit state regulators from classifying sections of land specifically to achieve or maintain biological diversity. It also would delete "biological diversity" from the Department of Natural Resources' list of forest management duties and order the department to balance management activities with economic values.
Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican and the committee chairman, says the measure is not meant to prevent the DNR from promoting healthy forests.
The goal, he says, is to prevent turning large areas into the equivalent of wilderness where logging and motorized recreation would be off-limits.
But environmentalists say the bill would force the DNR to put economic interests ahead of other considerations while limiting the department's ability to base decisions on science as it manages 4.6 million acres of state-owned forestland, mostly located in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
"It sends the message that we aren't serious about our role as stewards in conserving and protecting Michigan's native species and healthy ecosystems," said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council.
Casperson said his bill was inspired largely by concern about the Living Legacies Initiative, a DNR program to create a network of "biodiversity stewardship areas" where conservation of wide varieties of species and ecosystems would be sought. Those places would offer an opportunity for a return of old-growth forests, which all but disappeared during the logging boom of the 1800s.
The department spent years looking for tracts suitable for such a 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, said Bill O'Neill, chief of the Forest Resources Division.
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, which feared significant reductions in land available for logging. O'Neill said harvests still could take place in stewardships areas if they didn't interfere with conservation goals, but critics weren't mollified. Others opposed restrictions on motorized recreation such as off-road vehicles.
"I'm all for having wilderness areas in the state, but we have enough of that," said Scott Robbins, a spokesman for the Michigan Forest Products Council. "The people of Michigan need to have land available to create jobs. It's absolutely essential for rural communities to take natural resources like timber and natural gas and utilize them for their local economies."
Casperson said he was particularly concerned that about 200,000 private acres could get the Biodiversity Stewardship designation, although former DNR Director Rodney Stokes pledged it would happen only with the owners' consent.
Stokes, who has since moved to a different post, also said the program would not result in a net loss of logging or recreational opportunities on state lands.
"I've supported wilderness areas in the past," said Casperson, a former logger. "But I don't see the need for a move of this magnitude and it needs to be vetted. They have plenty of avenues to protect and diversify lands."
Marvin Roberson, a forest ecologist for the Sierra Club, said Michigan's forests are badly in need of centuries-old stands of white and red pines, which once dominated vast expanses but now are logged.
Other species such as cedar and Canada yew have trouble regenerating because deer over-browse them, he said. But the stewardship program could encourage logging other species such as jack pine and oak to produce the desired mix of age classes.
"With all the closures of big plants, demand for timber is down," Roberson said. "This program wouldn't cost a single job or close a single mill. There's always this claim of jobs versus the environment, but this is one case where both could win."
O'Neill said the DNR has not taken a formal position on Casperson's bill and is still analyzing how it would affect the Living Legacies Initiatiave. He said the department hopes to reach an agreement with lawmakers.
"Nowhere do we intend to have biodiversity areas as kinds of locked-up places where nothing else can be done," he said.