State rec leaders visit Tech

HOUGHTON – Three high-level Michigan natural resource leaders visited Michigan Technological University Thursday morning, presenting a united front to address challenges throughout the state.

Department of Natural Resources Director and Tech alum Keith Creagh, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Upper Peninsula District Coordinator Steve Casey and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Senior Policy Analyst Bill Bobier shared their visions for the future of state natural resources during presentations at Tech’s U.J. Noblet Forestry Building.

“We always have to remind ourselves that virtually everything in this room and everything we do comes from natural resources,” said Terry Sharik, dean of Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences, as the program wrapped up. “We cannot avoid talking about and being concerned about and being engaged in natural resources.”

DNR director addresses natural resources challenges and opportunities

Creagh was the first to speak, and he started by pointing out Michigan’s improving economy, which is at a 10-year high.

“Unemployment’s down, home sales are up, college student readiness is a little bit better, per capita income has gone up,” he said. “That’s all good stuff, but what I want to talk about is how to use natural resources as a driver.”

Michigan state owned forests produce 20 percent of timber to the state’s $14 billion timber industry, 13 percent of Michigan’s natural gas storage – the largest volume of any state – occurs on state land, Michigan’s 101 state parks host 22 million visitors each year and the state has access to 90 percent of the country’s fresh water, according to Creagh.

Those resources create an array of opportunities, which Creagh believes have been missed out on because of lack of collaboration between the three major resource departments. Now, he believes the DNR, DEQ and MDARD are as aligned as ever, under what Gov. Rick Snyder calls a “quality of life” grouping.

“In addition to being colleagues, we’re actually all friends. There’s not a whole lot of daylight between departments,” Creagh said. “We used to be pretty big competitors. Mixed messages, competitors, now … we can get a lot done.”

He pointed to the example of $21 million approved for dredging projects across the state, which was brought up as a major problem in December, with the $21 million to address it approved by the end of February.

“How did that happen? How did we get $21 million out in three months? It’s alignment. It’s about being on the same page,” he said.

He said earlier this year all recreation representatives met in one room, consolidating many of the 39 different plans. The various departments are now working to engage businesses, while embracing many of the opportunities, even land-based resources like mining.

“We will support land-based industries. Anybody who doesn’t want to do (mining), take your iPhone and throw it out the door,” Creagh said, emphasizing that technology is only possible with mined resources. “If it’s good enough to do it (somewhere else), it’s good enough to do it here. The DEQ has great regulations.”

Other DNR goals include protection (Asian carp, land/water use strategy and fracking, for example), recreation (support for Trust Fund projects, alignment for trail projects, low water levels), economy (energy efficiency, biofuels, timber business plans) and partners (businesses, local communities, joint management agreements).

MDEQ coordinator emphasizes importance of science over sound bites

Casey shared Creagh’s sentiment about the DEQ’s quality of regulations, but he said updating many of the regulations is particularly challenging in a “sound-bite society.”

“How do we manage resources in a society where people make important decisions about how they vote, what car they buy based on a sound bite? They don’t dig into the science,” Casey lamented.

He pointed to a high-profile example: mercury. He noted that much of the science from 25 years ago has been clarified, including the fact that only methylmercury can move through the food chain with fish (not elemental and reactive mercury).

“We don’t worry about (the two) others because they’re not into food chain. People are not in danger unless the mercury gets 1,000 times higher than the water quality limit,” Casey said.

He also said new scientific study has found that air releases (4,000 pounds per year released) are far more important than water releases (20 pounds per year), so much so that 90 percent of mercury loading to the Great Lakes comes from the atmosphere.

Another example is fillings in teeth, and he said that if you take the fillings from the mouths of seven adults, the amount of mercury in them would equal the same amount as in all the fish in the 1,000-acre Deer Lake in Marquette County, which was recently put on an International Joint Commission area of concern list for mercury contamination.

“Mercury is a complicated issue,” he said. “The science has come a long way, but we’re still using 1980s science to regulate mercury. The reason is because everyone gets afraid to stand up and propose new regulations because they’ll be killed by soundbites. … If it wasn’t for soundbites, we could be talking about how we can improve public health protection while reducing the economic impact of regulation.”

He said the two new mines in the U.P – Eagle Mine in Marquette County and Copperwood Mine in Gogebic County – are investing $40 million in reverse osmosis water treatment, partially due to outdated mercury regulations.

MDARD analyst discusses abundance of resources in Michigan

Bobier also examined opportunities in the state, particularly with agriculture.

“Agriculture itself has faced its challenges. This is a great environment right now to be a farmer in terms of prices. It’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said, noting that it’s possible for young people to start on 5 acres, whereas 10-15 years ago, starting a farm without significant capital investment would be nearly impossible.

He said fresh water is a key resource, but not the only one, and if some of the resources were used more fully, it could have huge economic impact.

“Here we are sitting on all these globally renowned resources – that hard maple doesn’t grow like this anywhere else, all that great water, this combination of soil – we ought not to ship them raw. We ought to employ people (to make finished products),” he said.

MDARD has big goals to meet by 2015, including increasing the economic impact of food and agriculture from $71 billion to $100 billion per year, doubling agriculture exports, improving access to healthy foods and increasing sustainable food and agriculture systems.

“We are really working on getting farmers doing the right things themselves instead of the command-and-control model,” he said.

He also said the state has been getting too “finicky” about dealing with some resources like watersheds, where not only are townships split over two different watersheds, some farms are even.

“We’re hoping to at least have sensible discussions,” he said.