Michigan’s Conservation Centennial: What Does It Teach?

P.J. Hoffmaster, who was Department of Conservation director longer than anyone else, served from 1934-1951 under both Democratic and Republican governors.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

The creation of a government agency rarely generates fanfare. Names and organization chart blocks come and go. But this year’s 100th anniversary of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is a little different.

Signed into law in March 1921 by Governor Alexander Groesbeck, what was then called the Department of Conservation and Commission was the consensus answer to the state’s need to heal the environment after decades of catastrophic mismanagement. 

Read this story on the DNR’s 100th anniversary.

Michigan’s natural resources were consumed at an alarming rate from the time Michigan became a state in 1837. A decline in fish abundance on the Detroit River due to overharvest was noted in the 1870s. In the same decade, timber harvest accelerated to nationally significant levels, ultimately toppling nearly all commercially viable white pine within 50 years. (In 1870 it had been estimated it would take 500 years to exhaust the white pine.) In 1878, the slaughter by market hunters of passenger pigeons near Petoskey resulted in the last major nesting of the birds in Michigan. And on and on.

The thinking—to the extent there was thinking—was that natural resources common to all could be “harvested” by private interests and sold at a profit. No need to worry about the future: there would be plenty left for later generations, or else they would find other ways to live.

Responding to these trends, the Michigan Legislature created a separate agency for each resource: The Board of Fish Commissioners in the 1870s, a Forestry Commission in the 1890s, a troop of paid state game wardens in 1885, a Public Domain Commission in 1908, a State Park Commission in 1919 and finally the Department of Conservation in 1921.

By that year, the public had turned on the resource exploiters, resentful that they had taken a vast portion of a resource bounty that belonged to all—a bounty that was at danger of declining irreversibly. Citizen leaders clamored for a unified agency with a broad perspective, operating from a conservation ethic.

Significantly, the citizenry wanted built-in protection for the new agency from the bias of politicians for short-term gain at the expense of the long-term health of natural resources. The 1921 law created a seven-member citizen Conservation Commission to buffer natural resources decisions from politics.  A few years later the buffer was reinforced when the Commission, not the governor, was given the power to appoint the director of the Department of Conservation.

And that’s the way it worked for 70 years. During that time Michigan’s state forest system became the largest of any state east of the Mississippi, a growing state park system supported a growing tourism economy, and the state won a national reputation as a leader in sustainable game and fish management. The Department’s name changed to DNR and anti-pollution programs were added to its mission in the 1960s and 1970s, but its reputation as a national leader only grew. And the citizen commission was a big part of that.

The Conservation Commission, later renamed the Natural Resources Commission, was the state forum for the big debates on natural resources policy. Heavyweights from all walks of life served on the panel, receiving reimbursement for expenses only, and turnout for some of its decision-making meetings was in the hundreds. Any citizen could speak to the decision-makers and get a response, sometimes immediately. It was transparent government at its best. And it was close to apolitical as an agency could come.

In 1991, Governor John Engler, by executive order, created a new DNR and gave himself the power to appoint the commission chair, a seemingly trivial move that in fact brought the department back under direct political control. In 1995, Engler issued another order splitting pollution programs from the conservation programs, leaving no citizen commission to oversee the pollution programs and neutering the Natural Resources Commission by giving himself the power to appoint the DNR Director.

We can’t go back to the past, but we can learn from it. One hundred years ago, citizens demanded creation of a state agency stewarding natural resources with an eye on the next generation, not the next election. In the ensuing decades Michigan distinguished itself in open decision-making about conservation, and its success grew. It is time to count on the wisdom of a citizen commission for both the DNR and the new Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to serve as a forum and policy setter for the next 100 years—if Michigan is to remain a national environmental beacon.

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