Tag: Michigan Department of Natural Resources

DNR Director Concerned about Climate Change, Accelerating Threats to Natural Resources

Au Sable River photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Michigan DNR Director Dan Eichinger.

Managing one of the oldest agencies in Michigan state government is the job of the youngest person ever appointed as its director. Dan Eichinger was 37 when Governor Gretchen Whitmer appointed him in 2019 to run the 101-year-old Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which was originally called the Department of Conservation.

Eichinger, however, had plenty of natural resources experience before Gov. Whitmer appointed him to the DNR’s top spot. Eichinger had served as the executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, in a number of other roles in the DNR, and was a policy advisor to then Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry, Jr., in the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“We can do important things as a forest landowner,” Eichinger said. “We can manage our forests to increase the storage of carbon and to promote resiliency.”

FLOW asked Eichinger to discuss what he regards as his most important accomplishments and the biggest challenges facing the DNR, which manages the state’s fish and wildlife, state parks, state forests, and more. Not surprisingly, climate change policy figures in both what’s been done and what’s yet to be tackled.

The DNR chief said he is pleased with his department’s response to climate challenges through public lands management, a role he says was given to the department by Gov. Whitmer. Eichinger pointed out that controlling the emissions that contribute to climate change is the responsibility of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“But we can do important things as a forest landowner, for example,” Eichinger said. DNR is steward of approximately four million acres of public forest land. “We can manage our forests to increase the storage of carbon and to promote resiliency.”

Another climate response the director has initiated is an effort to address the threat warming temperatures pose to prize cold water streams like the Au Sable River, an internationally renowned trout fishery. A team of Michigan State University scientists and interested stakeholders from the public is developing a strategy for protecting the cold groundwater flow that is critical to trout. 

“We need to protect our aquifer-driven cold-water streams,” Eichinger said. DNR can also protect the Au Sable and its counterparts by managing riparian forests to offer canopy that keeps waters cool.

“It’s not the Department of Natural Resources that our fish and wildlife and water and other resources belong to, it’s the public,” Eichinger said. “Our job as trustee of those resources is to protect them for the public, today and tomorrow. It’s a democratic, principled approach.”

The initiative is a “beta trial” for other Michigan rivers, which deserve more attention, the DNR director says. “We’re a state of great rivers,” he says. “People in Michigan connect more on a daily basis with rivers than the Great Lakes.” 

A related challenge to DNR, Eichinger said, is the pace at which threats to the health of natural resources is multiplying, from newly arrived aquatic invasive species like rock snot to terrestrial issues like tree blight. “There’s a matrix of threats, and we will have to be adept at responding.”

One tool in the resource protection fight is the public trust doctrine, Eichinger said. “It’s not the Department of Natural Resources that our fish and wildlife and water and other resources belong to, it’s the public. Our job as trustee of those resources is to protect them for the public, today and tomorrow. It’s a democratic, principled approach.”

A long-range opportunity for the DNR is the proposed Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in Congress, which would provide continuing federal funding for the agency and its counterparts in other states to protect and manage nongame species.

“We haven’t been able to do as much as we’d like because unlike fish and game species, there are no real funding sources to pay for nongame protection,” Eichinger said. “Protection of nongame species has co-benefits for fish and game species.”

Despite the threats, Eichinger is optimistic about the future of Michigan’s natural resources. “The public support we need is there. If we continue to act on it, we’ll live up to our responsibilities for future generations of Michiganders.”

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.