Michigan League of Conservation Voters: Rep. Robert Jones-100, Colony Farm Orchard-0

The League of Conservation Voters is a national environmental group that is best known for its Environmental Scorecard, where the league tallies the pro- and anti-environmental votes cast by our elected representatives.  I’m glad the organization exists; I strongly support the idea that we should know how politicians vote on conservation issues and hold them accountable .

Logo of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters

About a week ago, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (LCV) produced its Environmental Scorecard for the state legislature’s 2009-2010 session.  The scores were based on 18 bills in the House and 10 in the Senate.  Much of the report  was interesting and informative.  However, there was one serious omission–House Bill 5207.   This bill, introduced by Representative Robert Jones (D-Kalamazoo) and fast-tracked by him through the Commerce Committee of which he was chair, was as strongly anti-conservation, anti-environment, and anti-sustainability as any measure taken up this session.

The bill was not named “House Anti-conservation Bill 5207;” nevertheless, it was straightforwardly a bill to strip the open space/public use restriction from the Colony Farm Orchard, a semi-natural area adjacent to the Asylum Lake Preserve, in order to allow Western Michigan University to develop the site for expansion of its BTR Park.  Perhaps we ought to see the language of the restriction one more time:

“The conveyance shall provide that Western Michigan University may utilize the property solely for public park, recreation, or open space purposes, except that the legislature, by statute, may authorize Western Michigan University to utilize the property for some other public purpose.”

The anti-environment nature of the bill was brought to the attention of Michigan LCV staff by more than one person and on more than one occasion.  The conservation problems with HB 5207 were repeatedly brought to the attention of House and Senate members and the Governor  by letters, e-mails, phone calls, FAXes, personal visits , and e-mailed links to a documentary movie (The Colony Farm Orchard: Here We Go Again by Matt Clysdale) on YouTube.  By means of a couple of dozen published letters to the Kalamazoo Gazette, many news articles, public meetings and presentations of Matt Clysdale’s movie in Kalamazoo and elsewhere, the environmental controversy became widely known.

Nevertheless, the Michigan LCV did not include HB 5207 on its list of environmentally significant votes.

Because of this omission the LCV was able to award Representative Robert Jones a score of 100% and an “Honorable Mention” on its Environmental Scorecard.  As it turned out, 32 state representatives and 11 senators received 100% scores.  All were Democrats.

It is possible that  Rep. Jones introduced HB 5207 without knowledge of its conservation implications, or even its content.  But he certainly knew the problems well before his Commerce Committee took it up, well before the House passed it, and well before the Senate passed it–which was late at night just before the legislature broke for Christmas.

Dozens of people talked with Jones, asking him to withdraw HB 5207 or modify it.  But perhaps they weren’t the right people. They were WMU Environmental Studies students, local conservationists, members of community groups, and ordinary people who think that promises made should be promises kept.

We should note that with this bill included, no legislator would have received 100%.  All the 100% Democrats either voted for it, or took to the hills when the question was called. The only legislators who voted against the bill were two Republicans in the House and one Republican Senator. Clearly, no one in the Michigan legislature deserved a perfect score.  Without knowing how many other serious omissions there were from the list of “environmental” bills, it is impossible to know what the true highest score might have been.

Michigan LCV needs to consider seriously–and then let us know–why HB 5207 was omitted from the list of environmental bills.  Was it simple ignorance on the part of the staff that did the evaluation?  Was a decision made to overlook the anti-environment nature of the bill because WMU was marketing the bill as a job creation measure?  The politicians looked the other way when it became clear that any jobs created would be few and years away.  Perhaps LCV also looked away, afraid it might be seen as putting environment and business in conflict.

I suppose it could even be possible that HB 5207 was seen as too local an issue to be included.  If so, how many other bills of environmental importance might be missing from the evaluation?

But the conservation impact of HB 5207 reaches far beyond Kalamazoo. It sets a precedent for the legislature to tamper with conservation covenants on any land held by the state or state institutions.  What will happen if the Michigan Department of Natural Resources decides that we could get along without a few of our state parks and persuades a friendly legislator to introduce a bill to sell them for development?

A lawyer for a land-owner who wants to get out of a conservation easement that has become inconvenient could be thought remiss if the lawyer doesn’t say, Talk to your local representative.  The rules for conservation easements are just part of a state statute; they can be changed.

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters has some explaining to do.

View in Colony Farm Orchard early June 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer