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Public lands money on ballot

News Photo by Julie Riddle A river emerges from under the earth at the Undergrounds, Presque Isle County property purchased recently with the help of a grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

ALPENA — Money that comes from the land ought to return to the land, conservation officials think.

Parks and public places in Northeast Michigan have benefitted — to the tune of nearly $11 million — from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which catches the profits from the lease of public land for oil and gas drilling and earmarks it for park projects.

A question regarding the fund will appear on ballots in the November election, as officials seek to make it easier to distribute the money to local governments and make sure none of it is diverted into the state’s general fund.

Protected by the state’s constitution for use in protecting and developing parks, trust fund money has been used in Alpena County to provide a play place for children, extend the harbor breakwall, and improve local parks.

This fall, voters are being asked to make it easier for the fund’s board to approve grants, giving them more flexibility in making awards.

The measure would allow the board to dole out more money to development projects each year. Currently, no more than 25% of annual expenditures from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund may be spent on development, and at least 25% must be spent on land purchases.

That potential change that has raised some concerns about the need to prioritize protecting land rather than developing it for human use.

The item on the November ballot would also remove a cap that could, if the fund reaches a certain threshold, send excess money into the state’s general budget, explained Brad Jensen, executive director of the environmental protection group Huron Pines

Public lands have come to the forefront this year, as socially distancing Michganders took to the woods in droves — often discovering, as they wandered for the first time in years, that parks and other nature spots don’t perform their own maintenance, Jensen said.

“Those trails need some love,” he said.

Money from the trust fund can pay to buy and develop land, adding people-friendly amenities like new trails, educational signs, and river access.

The money can also be used for ball fields, tennis courts, restrooms, and other amenities.

Since 1976, trust fund money has been used in Alpena for projects totalling nearly $4.9 million. Those projects include the Starlite Beach Splash Pad and wildlife sanctuary in Alpena, improvements to the Ocqueoc Falls trailhead and overlook in Presque Isle County, and the purchase of the Brush Creek dam and millpond in Montmorency County.

Funds allotted from the fund in Northeast Michigan include $4.9 million in Alpena County, $644,000 in Alcona County, $670,000 in Montmorency County, and $4.5 million in Presque Isle County.

This spring, the fund was tapped to purchase a popular spot treasured by the locals in Presque Isle County.

The Undergrounds, until now owned by a private owner, is now public land, Jensen said, along with 80 acres to the north of it.

The quiet, alluring spot is beloved for its disappearing stream that pops out of the ground, disappears as suddenly, and reappears several miles away.

Years ago, a guide used to give tours of the area, but the property owner wasn’t fond of strangers traipsing across his land, Jensen said.

Now, in a real estate deal closed only recently, that land belongs to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and will be open for the people of the state to enjoy, thanks to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Several similar projects in Northeast Michigan are in the works, pending negotiations over property sales, Jensen said.

Huron Pines is looking for ways to help northern Michigan communities apply for trust fund grants. Larger communities have a leg up on grantwriting, with trained staff often available to seek funding for projects, Jensen said.

The organization is supportive of the ballot initiative to loosen trust fund distribution restrictions, something that won’t impact taxes or taxpayers, other than potentially giving them more green space in which to live and play.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that no more than 25% of annual expenditures from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund may be spent on development, and at least 25% must be spent on land purchases. That information was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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