Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund: How should state monies be spent?

ESCANABA – Citizens attending Wednesday’s town hall meeting on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund had much to say how these monies from mineral rights should be spent.

Ed McBroom (R-108th District) sponsored the meeting at Bay College to receive public input on developing a comprehensive strategy for the trust fund and the 4.5 million acres of land owned by the state.

Citizens and representatives from municipalities and recreational organizations from across the region attended the meeting.

The natural resources trust fund was established in 1976 as a source of funding for the state to buy land for resource protection and public outdoor recreation. Funding came from royalties on the sale and lease of state-owned mineral rights including oil and gas.

Following two constitutional amendments, voters increased the $200 funding cap to $400 million then to $500 million, explained Andrea LaFontaine, state representative from the 32nd district, who participated at Wednesday’s meeting.

Interest from the fund is used for project grants. Overflow from the capped fund goes into the State Park Endowment Fund for the operation, maintenance and capital improvements of state parks, capped at $800 million, said LaFontaine. Once that cap is reached, funds will flow into the general fund.

Also in attendance Wednesday was Steve DeBrabander, manager of the trust fund grant division, who said the fund’s purpose is to buy the rights of land for public use.

The monies are also used to develop projects related to public outdoor recreation, he said.

Comments from those in attendance focused a lot on the need for the state to maintain property it has purchased. DeBrabander explained the law does not allow the funds to be used for maintenance but it does allow for replacement projects.

As an example, DeBrabander said trust funds could be used to help develop a community tennis court but could not be used to maintain the court. On the other hand, trust funds could be used to replace the court.

Like many others at the meeting, Warren Suchovski of Stephenson expressed concern that the trust fund should be reviewed to change how and where monies are spent. As an example, he said roads on state land are in horrible shape and unmarked.

Suchovski also said he is concerned about how much land is owned by the state, saying more than one third of land is owned by the government.

Other topics of concern expressed by attendees were the need for more public access on state land, more grant opportunities, and more trail development including maintenance of bridges.

Concerns were expressed that the state is losing out on a lot of tourist dollars by not making more trails for off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and horses. There are 2,781 miles of trails in the Upper Peninsula, said DeBrabander.

Since the trust fund program began in 1976, a total of $83 million worth of grants have been approved to help fund projects in the U.P., said DeBrabander.

According to the Department of Natural Resources’ website, $2.1 million of these projects were in Delta County. They include land purchases, park and campground improvements, the DNR Pocket Park at the fairgrounds, and marina developments in Escanaba and Gladstone.

The first person to speak at Wednesday’s meeting commented that the state should pay its taxes on the land it owns.

McBroom clarified that in the past, the state did not always pay taxes on time for state-owned land but now the state must pay taxes out of the trust fund for land purchased with trust fund monies.

DeBrabander said the state owns 2.1 million acres of land in the Upper Peninsula out of the state-owned 4.5 million acres in Michigan. Only 2.3 percent of the state-owned land in the U.P. was acquired through the trust fund, he said.