Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Rambling" about Belle Isle and the indifference to management of Michigan natural resources by the DNR stewardship

I just posted this on the se-mich birders list and copy it here. (see note at the bottom that triggered my ramble ...) - "Dr. Bob"

Jack –

Thanks SO much for this! Well done! Thanks for taking the time, and thanks for informing us!

It is rare today that any of us understand what the politicians are doing. (I am sure they like it that way …)

When I first heard of Belle Isle being considered as joining the state park system, I was overjoyed! It needs help! Belle Isle is a wonderful ecological treasure within an urban environment! It is a place Judy and I visit several times each year. Besides the great birding along the river, the small lakes offer exceptional views of waterfowl, and great opportunities to photograph them! Add to that the Nature Center and surrounds (including some older forest) and it is truly incredible! Cool! State Park! Far better maintenance than cash-strapped Detroit can provide. Yet, now I wonder …

I am sure all of you birders have seen Allen Chartier’s bird survey reports from Belle Isle on the birder’s listserv. You also see many postings from other birders throughout the year. Indeed, it is an exceptional place for special bird sightings! It needs ecological preservation!!!

An older interesting blog from Allen highlights botanical specialties there:
Indeed, again! Far more than birds – botanical treasures! It is a rare ecological environment! Allen’s blog included links to some of the groups that advocate Belle Isle as a very important treasure.

I am sure I could have found more … but I am “rambling” now and just picked one.

Sadly, I tend to doubt any of the involved parties (Detroit City Council or DNR) have consulted Allen’s studies. (I hope I am wrong …) Each side seems to have their own agenda and I do not think Nature ranks very highly.

Until recently, I thought very highly of the DNR-run Michigan State Park system. It is wonderful that lands were set aside and managed for preservation of opportunities to enjoy nature. When I came to Michigan more than 15 years ago, I found a very dedicated staff! Sadly now, I tend to think that economic times and changing personnel have pushed the DNR beyond their former commitment to preservation of natural settings. Yes, the $11 passport fee (paid with your vehicle license fee – cheap- cool!) allows access to all state parks and DNR launch sites (a bargain), but I now think the added revenue has launched a totally different mindset in the DNR! I hear about selling park lands and harvesting resources within the parks now.

I read Jack’s excellent review (!) while remembering the recent postings of my friend Rob (Hiking Michigan) as I read what the DNR is doing to hiking trails in our natural areas. Rob comments specifically about proposals (and actual work) at Holland Ponds and Highland Recreation Area to convert trails into bike paths, and also refers to (and provides a link to) the overall plan. I have always enjoyed the growing network of bike trails in Michigan – and in fact support “Rails to Trails”. Wonderful! I wish I were young enough to fully participate in enjoying them on a bike – the places I could go…!. But converted “rails” are one thing. Trails to bike trails – no thanks! Especially when habitat loss is part of the equation!

Check out the Hiking Michigan site (several postings – scroll down):

Yes, Rob is incensed – and I think appropriately so - and his recent posts are very different from the normal park and trail maps (excellent!!! – see the site!) species ID lists, outdoor etiquette and preparation stuff he has been posting for years. But when you read the HM postings, coupled with Jack’s evaluation of Belle Isle, I think a larger picture emerges!

And, also I seem to remember several previous proposals to set up profit centers on Belle Isle because of the location. Sure, a winery would be cool – great environment. I think it was in the location of the endangered tern nests!!! But we have so many great wineries in Michigan already … why Belle Isle? Sure an amusement park would be cool. But why did Detroit not use the old cement docks for this? Detroit had a horrible waterfront! We used to go to Windsor fairly often and were appalled by the comparison of their accessible waterfront parks with Detroit! (Yes, the new riverfront in Detroit is getting better …). Or have casinos on the waterfront for that matter? Now, that might have put Detroit on a par with Atlantic City? Connected casinos. A destination! Well, Detroit passed. Casinos are now self-standing, and with the possible exception of Greektown, maintain captive audiences. Casinos benefit – no Detroit destination.

Amusement park? Sure Boblo Island seems like it was a great place and time. It was back then – far before my time. If an amusement park is desired, I suggest Detroit has HUGE blighted spaces that could easily be opened up! Disneyland is inland, and created a huge financial resort center around it! Similarly Knott’s Berry Farm that started with a roadside stand selling great jams and jellies. On the other hand, I tend to think about the State Fair and Detroit Zoo – also in open spaces. Could management have anything to do with it?

OK, fine, I rambled again. Sorry, got lost in possibilities.

My point here is that our present DNR does NOT seem capable of making decisions for the benefit of our natural environment and national ecological treasures! In my mind, some pieces are coming together. While I doubted the Detroit City Council for fighting against the takeover of Belle Isle (hey, free money and management), I now applaud their hesitancy – albeit for their possible different reasons.

There are magical – almost mystical – facilities (like the old zoo for one) on Belle Isle, and with restoration, I believe the isle could be restored to its former glory. Witness the aquarium and the conservatory with so many dedicated members and volunteers. Witness the Nature Center that while small, is a focal point for our visits.

But, primarily, our visits are for the birds. Yes, I realize the old phrase “for the birds” renders my opinion almost meaningless in the context of decision makers, but now any political body that knows the economic value of birders needs to seriously consider us! I fully suggest that all politicians should recognize us!!! We birders are not so unlike the hunters and fishermen who dictated the use of Michigan’s resources for all time. Add to that all of the people who truly believe that Pure Michigan (the ad campaign) means that Michigan offers opportunities in the outdoors that few other states can provide!!! Pure means just that! Our resources – pure outdoors!!!

As a former Californian, I guarantee that turning natural spaces into amusement parks or personal physical demonstration venues (like mountain biking) will far diminish the value most of us outdoors people (birders, hikers, photographers, walkers, fishermen, hunters, parents teaching children, and everyone seeking solace away from the stress we experience daily within “society at large”), will diminish our own selves as well! Sure, places are needed for playing with new “toys” (snow mobiles, off-road vehicles, mountain bikes, etc.) but please DO NOT create them in our special natural places! Yes! Rails to trails! It is cool to be able to go from one side of the state to the next! It is sad the railways (part of America’s heritage) are no longer profitable, but it is so wonderful local communities bought the rights and made them available to us all.

But do NOT drop a new bike path on the trails at Holland Ponds (jeopardizing the largest heron rookery in the state) or take out nature trails along a lake margin!

And, do NOT jeopardize a national ecological resource and treasure like Belle Isle when our DNR is thinking more like a business that only wants to make money more than as a conservator of a place where so many people find peace, wildlife, and solitude in the outdoors! Fishing, picnics, hiking, birding - family times! Indeed, yes, Detroit needs to put more money into preserving Belle Isle! Drugs, vagrancy and upkeep of facilities are indeed concerns! But as occasional visitors - (Never on hot summer weekends, and NEVER at night! They gotta work on this…) - we have experienced little more than “just regular people” enjoying the outdoors.

Thanks, Jack and Rob for allowing my thoughts to coalesce! Moral – times are changing! As much as it is another “thing to do” in our busy schedules, we all have to become better informed about the political changes taking place in our state that will affect us all in the future pursuit of our happiness and the solitude we take for granted in the great outdoors! We need to - as Jack and Rob are doing – become more involved! The alternative is dismal.

Not that it really matters much to me … I will not be here … but I am “just saying” …

And I really care!

- “Dr. Bob”


From Jack:

The “birder’s list” posted a link to an article about Belle Isle, which prompted me to look up and read the actual Lease being proposed for Belle Isle. While State funding could, indeed, be a benefit to the island, I did not feel that the Lease language was fair to the City or necessarily beneficial for Belle Isle. Here is a copy of the letter which I drafted and sent to the members of the Detroit City Council today.
Dear Detroit City Council member:

As a brief introduction, my name is Jack (…) and I have lived in Detroit for most of my life. Although I have recently moved, I am still involved with Friends of Rouge Park and I still maintain a deep interest in the preservation and revitalization of the City. I founded and led the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy for over 20 years, and have protected nearly 3,000 acres in southeast Michigan. I am also a licensed Michigan Real Estate broker (over 30 years experience) and have read numerous real estate contracts and leases.

In my personal and professional opinion, the proposed Lease of Belle Isle to the State of Michigan is one-sided in favor of the State and does not have sufficient protections for the City of Detroit or for all of the people who cherish and enjoy Belle Isle.

My biggest objections are:

1) Length of the Term. THIRTY (30) years is simply too long. The City of Detroit should not enter any agreement which would bind it for more than TEN (10) years. The State may argue that it needs more time to recoup its investments, but any investments are for the benefit of the people--not for the benefit of City or State government.

2) Automatic Renewal. Lease language in Paragraph 4.1 indicates that renewals are AUTOMATIC, unless the City specifically takes action ahead of time. Lease renewals should NOT be automatic, but should require deliberation and a vote to extend the Lease, the same as is required to enter the Lease.

3) Lease Termination Rights.Paragraph 4.3 gives the State the right to terminate the lease upon 18 months notice. The City of Detroit should have that same right! (Perhaps after an initial 5 or 10-year period.)

There has been talk of giving the City the right to back out of the lease every ten years, but no language to that effect is in the Lease posted on the City Council web site. It only states that the City can get out of the Lease "for cause"--meaning a clear breach of the Lease by the State. Different--or even inappropriate--management may not be cause for termination of the Lease.

4) Sub-Leases. Under Paragraph 6.3 (as well as Paragraph 7) the State can lease property on Belle Isle to others ("Lessee has exclusive authority over all aspects of current and future Park leases..."). This would allow a lease similar to what happened in Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor--where public park land was leased to a private golf course developer. The City of Detroit would have no say in the matter.

Paragraph 7.1 allows the State to lease Belle Isle for uses inconsistent with the Lease--but the City must provide written consent "which shall not be unreasonably withheld"!

5) Management of Belle Isle. The State is claiming that the DNR would be a good steward of Belle Isle, but there is no guarantee that would be the case. The sole statement in Paragraph 2.3 that Belle Isle is to be managed "in a manner consistent with other state park operations" provides little insight as to how Belle Isle will actually be managed under this Lease. Will woods be cut down (as the DNR did in Highland State Recreation Area) to provide temporary parking for travel trailers? Will expensive marinas be constructed for the benefit of a few and blocking access to the river for many? Will historic structures be torn down in favor of "new" ones? Will Belle Isle be overrun by travel trailers, as is the case in so many state parks?

The DNR could, in fact, be a good steward of the historic and environmental resources of Belle Isle, but the City of Detroit has no assurance that it will--and even no say in the matter. Paragraph 2.12 calls for an "Advisory Committee", but an advisory committee is just that. Why not create a joint City-State "Authority" to run Belle Isle? Does the City really need to give up ALL rights to assure the continued preservation and maintenance of Belle Isle?

Belle Isle is a natural jewel in the Detroit River. It does not need a lot of expensive "development" to make it better. Money from the State may help--but it could just as easily detract from the natural character of Belle Isle and its accessibility to all. The Lease is simply silent on what is in store for Belle Isle's future should the State take over.

At this point, I would urge you to vote NO on the proposed Lease--or seek MAJOR modifications which will give the City of Detroit some say in the matter, and give the City ample opportunity to terminate the Lease--or, at least, give it the same termination rights held by the State.

I would be happy to answer any questions or to review future drafts of the proposed Lease. (I don't believe your City attorneys are doing a good enough job in protecting the City's interests.)

Sincerely, Jack (…)

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