This month, as weather warms and spring arrives, Michiganders begin to think about heading outdoors. As we do so, it’s important to remember there is still fierce debate going on — in the Michigan Legislature and at the federal level — on how best to protect the environment for future generations.
Here (below) is a collection of viewpoints from local activists, advocates and environmentalists who offer solutions to some of the most significant environmental issues facing us today.
Michigan forests offer solutions to climate change
Curbing greenhouse gas emissions that hasten global climate change is an all-hands-on-deck, global undertaking, and each jurisdiction — including Michigan — must do its part, in earnest. The state promised a vision and a plan to do just that, but the draft Michigan Healthy Climate Plan released in January misses the mark. Although the plan includes many good ideas — particularly related to energy and transportation — it leaves out powerful forest sector solutions essential to Michigan’s achievement of our goal for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Michigan forests, urban trees and harvested wood products remove 10 percent — and store the equivalent of 37 years — of all CO2 emissions produced here. By improving forest management practices, planting more trees, restoring forests and using climate-beneficial wood products, forestry’s contribution to global climate change solutions could increase substantially.
The federal government is leveraging forests, forest practices and forest products as a major thrust of its climate policy: the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a $1 billion program for forestry and agriculture-based climate solutions to move markets towards ‘climate-smart’ food and wood products in ways that contribute to clean air and water, benefit public health and create new jobs in both rural and urban areas.
But Michigan is poised to miss out on these benefits unless the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy revises the draft plan to proactively leverage them. The state has at its fingertips the resources to do so — the result of 18 months of work culminating in recommendations by the Natural Working Lands workgroup of the Michigan Council on Climate Solutions. We must revisit these recommendations, which include specific approaches and metrics to track progress, and incorporate them into the final version of the plan.
In addition, the following forestry and wood products strategies should be part of the state’s holistic approach to achieving carbon neutrality:
Restore forests on non-productive or unused agricultural and other land. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in trunks branches and roots — as well as in soil. In fact, wood is about 50 percent carbon by weight. With good land-use planning, there is no conflict between agriculture and forestry, so we should ensure as much forest cover as possible on non-agricultural lands.
Improve forest management practices to optimize carbon uptake and other key forest functions. Removing non-native invasive species, diseased trees and fuel build-up promotes healthy tree growth, reduces carbon-releases through catastrophic wildfires and achieves both biodiversity and carbon/climate objectives.
Support the production and use of climate-beneficial wood products, including mass timber. These panelized, engineered wood construction materials use large volumes of wood that store lots of carbon in big buildings for decades or centuries. For example, Michigan State University’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility — the state’s first mass timber structure — stores at least 1,856 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Plant the right trees in the right places in urban and suburban areas. In addition to absorbing and storing carbon, urban trees act as buffers to reduce building energy use and emissions and help reduce pressure on stormwater systems as climate change induces bigger rainfall events.
Michigan has ready access to a win-win-win scenario for climate, the environment and the economy — our state leaders cannot afford to ignore it. But those powerful benefits will slip from our grasp unless we incorporate clear, robust and measurable forestry and wood products strategies into the Michigan Healthy Climate Plan before it hits the Governor’s desk.
Richard Kobe is the chairperson of the Michigan State University Department of Forestry, Sandra Lupien serves as director of MassTimber@MSU.
Our drinking water lacks the protection it deserves
A natural resource on which nearly half the population of Michigan depends every day is one that most of us rarely think about: Groundwater, and it’s especially critical in mid-Michigan. The tri-county area depends almost exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source — both from public wells managed by the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the City of East Lansing, and thousands of private wells in outlying areas.
Some 45 percent of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground, but because it is out of sight it is often out of mind. Its invisible nature has made groundwater vulnerable to neglect and mismanagement. Michigan is pocked with more than 14,000 groundwater contamination sites, including one of the nation’s largest, a 13 trillion-gallon plume contaminated by the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene). Due to funding limitations, the state is addressing only two percent of these polluted sites this year.
Groundwater is vital globally, too. The salty oceans are not drinkable and constitute approximately 97 percent of all the world’s water. About two percent of all water is fresh water frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Of the remaining one percent, almost all of it is groundwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
If Michigan’s groundwater were visible, it would be hard to miss. If combined, all the groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal in volume to Lake Huron — a sixth Great Lake of sorts.
But groundwater is not an underground pool. Instead, it fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock — much the same way that water fills a sponge. And it lacks the protection it deserves.
Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water. Thousands of these wells are contaminated with nitrates. Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and public health from 130,000 failing septic systems that discharge human waste.
My organization, For Love of Water, is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City. Last month we sponsored a webinar on Michigan’s groundwater challenges and opportunities on World Water Day, where scientists and public officials spoke of the urgent need to educate Michiganders about the importance of groundwater.
Learning about groundwater is the necessary first step toward action, and protective action is what Michigan needs to safeguard its groundwater for current and future generations.
Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. He is the author of several books on Michigan’s environment.
More from opinion
Clean mobility helps the Michigan auto industry
Last fall, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act, creating an important down payment to bolster our transportation infrastructure and invest in the future of clean mobility. Across the nation, communities will benefit from these investments.
Michigan will receive billions of dollars to fix roads and bridges, replace lead pipes and more — including substantial investments in clean mobility solutions, such as $1 billion to improve public transportation and another $110 million to build electric vehicle charging stations.
Meanwhile, Congress has continued to consider additional investments, but timing and the specifics have been a moving target. What is clear is the transition to clean transportation will benefit Michigan’s auto industry, support good-paying jobs, lower families’ transportation costs and help make our air healthier to breathe.
Why are investments in clean transportation so important? In Michigan, 20 percent of jobs are tied to the mobility sector. And automakers — many of whom have strong footprints in Michigan — are announcing grand plans to electrify their vehicle offerings, which means Michigan jobs will transition, too. Smart, bold policies that support cleaner mobility technologies in a way that creates good-paying union jobs, grows domestic industries and advances environmental justice is an imperative.
Additional policies being considered could create tax incentives for job creators to expand electric vehicle manufacturing and help states like Michigan, the birthplace of the automobile industry. A new tax credit for commercial zero-emission vehicles, covering up to 30 percent of the cost per vehicle, would accelerate the transition away from gas and diesel by making new electric vehicle technology more affordable for consumers. In addition, this policy would expand tax credits to include facilities producing zero-emission medium and heavy-duty vehicles, like delivery trucks and school buses.
If passed, the Clean Heavy Duty Vehicles program would provide trucking, the backbone of our economy, $5 billion in grants. $9 billion would also be granted to electrify the United States Postal Service trucks and provide infrastructure for the General Services Administration. For vehicle manufacturing, a critical industry in Michigan, $3.5 billion would be allocated to help car manufacturers transition to producing plug-in electric hybrid, plug-in electric drive, and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.
It’s important to recognize that impacts of a poor air quality don’t affect every Michigander equally. Minority and traditionally underserved communities face far more detrimental economic, environmental and health impacts. That’s why these programs have a large environmental justice component with a strong focus on investments, training and re-training for Black, indigenous and people of color communities.
It’s time to rev the economic engine of the state that birthed the automotive industry, create new jobs, lower transportation costs, clean our air, and empower people with the skills to build a prosperous future for our state.
Jane McCurry is the executive director of Clean Fuels Michigan, a non-profit trade organization comprised of businesses and industry stakeholders dedicated to advancing the future of clean mobility.
We need to protect Michigan wolves
The restoration of Endangered Species Act protections for wolves was a ray of hope for all those working so hard for them here in Michigan. The majority of Michiganders who value wolves, including those who twice voted to protect them from trophy hunting and trapping in the 2014 general election, can take some comfort in the fact that these highly social and intelligent animals are, for now, safe from such threats.
However, there is a persistent political problem in our state that continues to put wolves in jeopardy. In a flurry of statements made in response to the restoration of endangered species protections, some Michigan lawmakers have signaled that they won’t easily relinquish the misguided rhetoric, attitudes and policies that drove our state’s previous mismanagement of wolves — including downplaying the serious crime of poaching.
During the February meeting of the Wolf Management Advisory Council, for example, one member put forward a motion to recommend a wolf hunt. Unsurprisingly in this conclave stacked with trophy hunting and agricultural interests, it passed 3 to 1. All three members supporting the motion have spoken vehemently in favor of a wolf hunt.
This glimpse into the work of the council shows that it is a rubber stamp operation rather than a true deliberative body. The vote went ahead despite the fact that the sole member of the council who represents tribal interests could not travel on account of a winter storm, and was not permitted to participate virtually.
There is a fundamental disregard for the facts, the democratic process and good governance on this committee, something that is all too common in decision-making bodies focused on wildlife management. This leaves us in a terrible place: Since some people don’t care that much what level
of protection wolves receive, those who want to hunt wolves will continue to dominate policymaking, waiting for an opportunity to erode those protections at every turn.
This determination by state officials and influencers to ignore science and public values in their crusade to persecute and kill wolves demonstrates exactly why state government officials cannot be trusted to responsibly manage them. Some of these officials are deeply out of touch with the majority of Michiganders who celebrate and value wolves.
A recent poll of voters found that not only are a majority of Michiganders opposed to the trophy hunting and trapping of wolves, but 88 percent say it’s important that Michigan acts as a responsible steward for its wolves. And 71 percent think state officials should honor the decision voters made in the 2014 general election not to open a wolf hunting season.
While the Wolf Management Advisory Council is tasked with providing recommendations for wolf management, should wolves lose their federal protections, the fate of our state’s animals is ultimately in the hands of the un-elected Natural Resources Commission. It is crucial that Michiganders remind members of the Natural Resources Commission, at NRC@michigan.gov, of what our state’s voters have already made clear: We care about our wolves and want them protected from trophy hunting, trapping and poaching.
Molly Tamulevich is the Michigan state director for the Humane Society of the United States.
Farmers, small businesses benefit from solar too
Solar power is one of the most powerful tools we have when it comes to reducing our reliance on harmful fossil fuels, keeping the lights on for Michigan families and businesses and creating local, good-paying jobs. When thinking about solar, many people envision panels on the roof of a single family home.
And, while it’s true that rooftop solar is a major tenant of our state’s solar economy, homeowners aren’t the only Michiganders who stand to benefit. Farmers and small business owners across the state rely on solar power as an affordable energy source that reduces overhead costs and carbon emissions simultaneously.
Reading all of this, it’s clear that scaling up solar should be a no-brainer. Why, then, does Michigan have a stifling one percent limit on the amount of electricity that can be generated through solar?
Michigan State House Bill 4236 is a common-sense piece of legislation with support on both sides of the political aisle. If passed, it would eliminate Michigan’s cap on distributed energy resources — arguably the most restrictive in the country — and jump-start solar industry growth. The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) has indicated that it has sufficient support to pass through the legislature and be signed into law. But instead of sailing through to passage, it’s been stalled in the energy committee for more than a year.
These political games are having real-world impacts across Michigan, where the unemployment rate is currently the ninth highest in the nation. It is denying us clean energy jobs that could uplift communities. In fact, more than 3,300 Michiganders rely on the solar industry to support their families, and that number has the potential to multiply as solar prices continue to drop and demand rises.
The consequences of the solar cap also extend beyond the workforce to everyday life. Last August, widespread outages left nearly one million Michigan households without power on one of the hottest days of the year. This was not a one-off fluke. As severe weather events become more commonplace, so do outages, with impacts ranging from inconvenient to downright dangerous. It’s never been clearer that we need solar plus storage to increase grid resilience and reliance.
Michigan’s solar cap is needlessly inhibiting our solar industry, slowing down our clean energy transition and restricting Michiganders’ energy freedom.
Lucas Olinyk is the president of Harvest Solar, a Michigan-based solar company that serves eleven Midwestern states. John Delurey is the Midwest senior regional director at Vote Solar, a national solar advocacy nonprofit.
Big picture action on climate change can’t wait
Michigan consistently pays the highest rates for electricity and gets the worst service in the Midwest. When storms hit, our power is out longer. When companies think about investing in Michigan, they think twice due to our high electricity prices. Our investor-owned monopoly utilities — DTE and Consumers Energy — still plan to pollute our communities with coal and climate change-inducing natural gas for years to come.
The good news is that our leaders in Washington can change this track by investing in clean, renewable energy and modernizing our electric grid, all while providing good-paying jobs to Michigan families.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold action to transition our energy to cleaner, more reliable sources that will power our homes and economy for the future. Over the summer, Michiganders from across the state shared their stories and voiced support for bold climate action to their members of Congress, urging them to pass comprehensive legislation that invests in climate, clean energy, and environmental justice. Last year, this took the form of the Build Back Better Act that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in November.
An overwhelming, bipartisan majority of Americans support infrastructure investments that tackle the climate crisis. They are concerned about the immediate impacts of climate change on their communities, their children and their futures. We have a real opportunity to transition to a cleaner energy future, lower costs and building an economy with the jobs of tomorrow that will allow us to compete on the global stage.
Our communities are suffering from climate change right now and the extreme weather events, massive flooding and failures in our infrastructure are only expected to get worse. Investments in electric vehicles and clean energy will drive Michigan’s future. Michigan once put the world on wheels. We served as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ during the second World War. Let’s pass bold legislation to invest in clean energy to help Michigan become leaders of the new green economy.
Bentley Johnson is the federal government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
Local viewpoints such as these are curated periodically by LSJ staff for the opinion page. Check out our opinion guidelines and FAQ for more information; to submit, email firstname.lastname@example.org.