Historically, MUCC has inducted people into its Conservation Hall of Fame. This time, in honor of its 75th anniversary, MUCC is inducting an idea. The idea was the concept of taking a non-renewable resource and using the proceeds from that taking to invest in something that is a renewable resource: public land and the endless recreational opportunities it provides. The name of this idea? The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Described by many as one of the greatest political compromises in the state’s history, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund is the outcome of a clash between oil and gas interests and the environmental/conservation community after an extensive hydrocarbon discovery within the Pigeon River Country State Forest in 1970. Because many of the leases for exploration of this area were acquired by oil and gas companies in the 1960's, conflict ensued as to whether drilling permits should be awarded in this area or whether Michigan’s “Big Wild”, as it was termed by P.S. Lovejoy, should be protected from such activities.
Stirring accounts of the interplay between these interests have been written. Many of state’s highest-ranking public officials were involved in the debate, including Governor Milliken, Attorney General Frank Kelly, DNR Director Howard Tanner, and Circuit Court and Michigan Supreme Court judges. Representatives from the conservation/environmental community included MUCC’s newly-hired Tom Washington, Ken Sikkema of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Ford Kellum of the newly formed Pigeon River Country Association, Grant Trigger of the Michigan Environmental Council, the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. For the oil and gas industry, the President and CEO of the Michigan Oil and Gas Association, Frank Mortl led the way, accompanied by the likes of Shell Oil, Michigan Oil Company, McClure Oil Company of Alma and various representatives from the business community. For years, the conflict continued.
By 1974, the economic and environmental concerns about drilling in the Pigeon remained unresolved. Governor Milliken asked the DNR to prepare an environmental impact statement on the proposed drilling. As a part of this process, Don Inman, a young wildlife ecologist working for Howard Tanner’s assistant, Jack Bails, came up with an idea to mitigate the damage caused by the drilling. Inman’s idea was to deposit the millions in state revenue generated by the sale of oil and gas leases and their accompanying royalties into a special fund earmarked for the acquisition of other recreational lands for the people of the State of Michigan. As Jack Bails described it in Dave Dempsey’s book, RUIN AND RECOVERY, “the idea was to take the assets of oil, and turn them into assets of land.” The idea was brilliant.
By 1975, quiet negotiations between MUCC’s Tom Washington and Frank Mortl of MOGA took place. Senator Kerry Kammer agreed to introduce the Kammer Recreational Land Trust Fund Act of 1976 (P.A. 204) creating the first iteration of this special fund. In 1984, Michigan voters passed Proposal B which amended the State Constitution to create what is now called the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, but it still wasn’t protected from diversion of assets in the fund for other purposes. In 1994, Proposal P passed, preventing diversion of Trust Fund monies to the state’s General Fund, and allowing MNRTF funds to be used to create the State Park Endowment Fund by providing up to $10 million to the new fund annually.
Finally, Proposal 2 was approved by Michigan voters in 2002, raising the cap on MNRTF assets to $500 million and providing for any overflow to immediately go to the State Park Endowment Fund. In 2010, the State’s revenue from the oil and gas lease auction surpassed all previous records. By 2011, the $500 million cap was reached, and the State Park Endowment Fund reaped the benefits of the overflow.
Since its inception in 1976 over $900,000,000 in MNRTF monies have been invested into public land acquisition and public recreational improvements in all 83 of our state’s counties. In total, over 1,600 acquisitions and public recreational projects have been funded for the people of the State of Michigan through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Looking back at this remarkable achievement through the lens of today, reaching such an extraordinary compromise between such diverse and seemingly conflicting interests seems all too incredible. Yet those from the political, environmental, conservation, oil and gas and business communities were able to find common ground back then, and create a unique tool for natural resource management and public enjoyment that is the gold standard for the rest of the country.
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