Environment Picture

133 Michigan scientists have a message for Governor Rick Snyder: Just say no

This is an edited version of a Q&A originally published on MEC’s blog, Michigan Distilled. To read the full version, visit www.michigandistilled.org.

We asked University of Michigan School of Natural Resources Professor Bradley Cardinale, PhD, to answer some of our questions about the anti-biodiversity Senate Bill 78. The legislation would redefine the term “biodiversity” in state law and prohibit state agencies from designating public lands to protect biological diversity. The bill passed the State Senate and was pending in the Michigan House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee at press time.

Cardinale, whose work focuses on the challenges of protecting biodiversity, has been working to point out the far-reaching ramifications of the bill. He and 133 other PhD-level professors representing 13 Michigan universities have signed a letter urging Gov. Rick Snyder to veto SB 78 should it reach his desk.
Tell us about your letter to the governor. And you have not yet sent it, is that right? When will you?

Very simply, this letter says that SB 78 is scientifically unsound. People have objected to SB 78 for a whole variety of reasons. The 133 scientists who signed this letter object to SB 78 because it would take away our ability to protect biodiversity in Michigan and this would jeopardize the health, productivity, and sustainability of Michigan’s public lands. We have prepared this letter in the event that the House of Representatives passes SB 78. At that point, we will submit our letter to Governor Snyder. If he signs SB 78 into law, he will do so against the best advice of his state’s leading academic scientists.

At last count, 133 Michigan scientists have signed the letter. Who are they, and what kinds of knowledge and experience do they represent?

All of the individuals who signed this letter are professors who teach and do research at one of 14 Michigan universities. All have PhDs and represent fields including ecology, forestry, fisheries and wildlife, economics, and statistics. Several are chairs of their respective schools, and some are decorated emeritus professors. Collectively, this group has thousands of years of professional experience and has published thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles detailing how people impact nature and how nature impacts people.

Why do you think this legislation has generated so much concern within Michigan’s scientific community? What parts are most problematic to you as a scientist?

Many people may not be aware that all renewable natural resources ultimately come from biodiversity. Without biodiversity, the world could not sustain basic life-support processes such as the production of breathable air or purification of water. Without biodiversity, you could not sustainably produce food, fiber or wood, and you could not control pests and disease. Without biodiversity, you would not have the genetic resources needed to develop renewable sources of energy like biofuels, to develop new crops that are resistant to pests or disease, or to develop microbes that can clean up pollution. Without biodiversity, you wouldn’t have the recreational benefits of hiking, fishing or hunting, the tourism dollars from those who want to spend time enjoying the great outdoors, or the health benefits that people get from nature.

We know many scientists are reticent to get involved in politics. Has this proposed legislation brought some of them out of the shadows? Why?

It has indeed brought many researchers out of the ‘shadows.’ Historically, professors have been hesitant to translate their science into policy recommendations for fear that it might compromise the objectivity of their research, or be viewed as a conflict of interest. But that perspective is changing as more researchers realize we can no longer afford to sit in the ivory tower and talk to each other. We need to do more ‘actionable science’ that can solve environmental problems and help people cope with a changing world. And more scientists are realizing they are in the best position to interpret their research and make recommendations to society on how to use it.

Policies like SB 78 foster the feeling among scientists that we need to speak up more. SB 78 is so scientifically illiterate and ill-informed that we had no choice but to tell Governor Snyder that this is a terrible idea for Michigan.

SB 78 supporters like to say there are more than 20 laws or programs that adequately protect management of state lands for biodiversity. Do you think that’s accurate? How might this legislation impact those programs and laws?

I have repeatedly heard Senator Casperson—sponsor of SB 78—claim that Michigan has 20 or more laws that protect biodiversity, so we don’t need any more. His claims are, at best, an exaggeration. At worst, he is intentionally trying to mislead people into thinking his bill won’t hinder our ability to protect biodiversity.

Certainly, we do have laws in Michigan that help protect biodiversity, and these are complemented by national laws like the Endangered Species Act. But collectively, these have not done a particularly good job at protecting Michigan’s biological heritage. Michigan is one of the world’s hotspots for invasive species. Michigan forests have been severely degraded by pests and disease. Michigan has more than 60 highly polluted superfund sites. And we have a long list of imperiled species in this state that are teetering on the edge of extinction. To suggest we are doing a good job of protecting our natural resources and don’t need to act further, is just plain silly.

Senator Casperson claims that the intent of his legislation is to stop a specific program—the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Living Legacies initia-tive. This initiative is a conservation plan that creates a statewide network of Biological Stewardship Areas (BSAs) intended to protect the diversity of Michigan’s flora and fauna. Despite abundant documentation to the contrary, Casperson believes BSAs would limit people’s access to public land and curb economic benefits like logging and mining
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