Michigan Rivers Act Foreshadows Dangers of American Heritage Rivers

Published May 1, 1998

Since 1970, Michigan residents have been living with what many fear is the prototype for the Clinton administration’s American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI): the Michigan Natural Rivers Act. The Act now covers 14 of the state’s rivers, with 25 more planned for designation.

Nearly three decades ago, proponents of the Natural Rivers Act–much like President Clinton and other AHRI proponents today–said the Act would give local residents the opportunity to protect the natural beauty of the rivers on which they lived. The Act has become, however, something far less appealing to Michigan residents: a powerful tool enabling the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to set aside private property rights, usurp the authority of locally elected officials and bodies of government, and unilaterally impose regulations.

Michigan residents were originally told they could simply ask that their river be nominated for Natural Rivers Designation. Then, according to DNR publications, “Following the nomination process, a long-range plan for the stream is developed jointly by the DNR, local government, and local citizens. This [plan] is then reviewed by the public through hearings and other meetings, and revised to reflect citizen concerns.”

In practice, local control of the designation process ends when the DNR forms what it terms a “local planning group”–the body which, theoretically, devises the plans and sets zoning regulations along the designated river. Many local planning group members live nowhere near the river they are supposed to be governing. Michigan’s Pine River local planning group, for example, boasts a Chicago member of the Sierra Club.

Adding insult to injury, the authority of these “local” groups is moot. If the DNR does not approve of the rules they make, it can set them aside and establish rules of its own. At a minimum, the DNR rules demand that:

  • Within 400 feet of the normal bank of a designated river, DNR permits are required for all new construction and building additions, as well as alterations to land, changing of usage from residential to rental, and splitting property of any size into smaller parcels. The usual minimum parcel size permitted by the DNR is 50,000 square feet.
  • No mowing, planting, or cutting of any kind of vegetation, living or dead, is allowed in an area ranging from 50 to 100 feet of the normal river bank.
  • No buildings, signage, fencing or any other man-made structures may be built in an area ranging from 75 to 150 feet of the normal river bank.
  • No septic system may be installed within 125 feet of the normal river bank (even though Michigan law permits septic systems within 50 feet of drinking-water wells).
  • Most commercial or industrial use is not permitted. On the Pine River, a resident may not use more than 30 percent of his or her home for business purposes.

Just as the wishes of local residents are often ignored, local governments are regularly overruled by the DNR. On the Pere Marquette River, a resident was given a variance by his local zoning administrator to build decks around his home. The DNR ordered the decks torn down, contending that the local administrator had no power to grant a variance. The matter is now before a hearing judge–whose ruling the DNR has the right to accept, modify, or completely reject.

When Michigan’s Oceana County Road Commission decided to replace a decaying bridge with large culverts, at a cost of $40,000, the DNR refused to grant the project a permit, insisting instead on a clear-span wooden structure costing $127,000. Even though culverts are permitted under the Act, the DNR argued, in part, that fish prefer swimming under bridges. The DNR produced no evidence of such a preference, and indeed fish have been swimming through culverts, seemingly happily, for many years. The culverts are now the focus of yet another Natural Rivers legal battle.

Under Michigan’s Natural Rivers Act, there’s no such thing as a rule you can count on. The Pine River’s original designation subjected property owners to nine pages of rules. Today, the rules of that river occupy 21 pages and are far more invasive, such as the aforementioned DNR rule restricting what one may do inside his or her own home.

The Michigan Natural Rivers Act has fallen victim to “mission creep,” the never-ending expansion of role that is loathed by the military but serves as the life-blood of regulatory agencies. Under the Natural Rivers Act, only one agency–the Michigan Department of Natural Resources–has been allowed to do the creeping. Under the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, dozens of federal agencies will be freed to creep, like freight trains, into communities throughout the country.