Recycling Schools

  • Joel Landy (center) bought the Malcolm X Academy in midtown Detroit. He's rehabbing the school and turning it into a music space, with areas for rehearsals, a recording studio and a concert venue. Ben Christenson (left) and one of his band mates talk with Landy about renting some space. (Photo by Jennifer Guerra)

A lot of Michigan’s big cities are shrinking. People have left the state to find work. Others have moved their families to the suburbs. As Jennifer Guerra reports… that has left a lot of urban school districts with empty school buildings. But instead of tearing the buildings down, some districts want to recycle them:

Detroit Public School real estate page

How the Lansing school district reuses its empty schools

Article on school reuse around the country

Another school Joel Landy bought and turned into a theater


The Detroit Public School district is sitting on more than 80 empty school buildings. Nearly all of them are smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods, so they’re huge eye sores. Not to mention it costs the district a lot of money to secure the buildings so no one breaks in.

So to drum up interest in all that unused real estate, the district held a one-day workshop for people to learn the ins and outs of how to buy or lease a school building.
One of the people there was Issac DeGraffenfiel. He wants to open a community center and day care facility…and he thinks repurposing a school building to do that is the way to go:

“Most school buildings have a gym. And most kids that I know in the inner city love to play basketball. So one way you get kids to come: Say hey you do this, you get to play basketball. JG: Would you be playing with them? Of course, I’ll try my best.” (laughs)

Detroit isn’t the only district trying to cash in on its real estate. The Lansing School District has sold more than 20 school buildings over the last couple decades, mostly to small tech companies. In Grand Rapids, a company converted the district’s old Union High School into fancy new condos.

Reusing and repurposing old school buildings is a win-win for a few reasons. One, it helps struggling school districts earn some money. Two, it’s generally cheaper to rehab an old building than to build a new one from scratch, and three…

HOPKINS: “There’s nothing more sustainable than an existing building. Flat out. Period.”

Gene Hopkins is an architect in Ann Arbor. He’s been practicing historic preservation for 35 years, and he says old school buildings have some great features:

“Lots of natural daylight, double hung windows that open for natural ventilation and thick masonry walls for keeping the heat in and for radiating the coolness in the summer.”

True, it can take a lot of time and a lot of money to recycle old building materials, but it’s usually cheaper than buying all brand new materials.

Take Joel Landy, for example. He bought a vacant school building in Detroit for $1,000 in 1991. The place was a dump. It had been empty for 20 years. There were actually trees growing on the first floor.

To rehab it, he spent seven million dollars. He says it would’ve cost him 10 to 20 million dollars to build a new school.

Landy’s most recent purchase is Malcolm X Academy in midtown Detroit. He’s going with a music theme for the building: rehearsal space, recording studio, even a music venue…

“It was a little slow to start, but every day I get two or three calls, sometimes 10 and every day I show two or three people the building. JG: You’ve got somebody here today, right? Yes, there’s a couple guys who have a rock and roll band and they’re looking for a room where they can practice, do some recording, and we’re going to meet them right now…”

We’re meeting Ben Christenson and one of his band mates. They’re looking at a couple rooms on the second floor…

“We’re interested for sure. We want to ask about 209, that room looks pretty cool, too…”

The building can hold 50 tenants. So far Landy has signed up seven. Meantime, he’s got some ideas for other people who might want to reuse a school building:

“They’re perfect for assisted living or loft living. In fact you could probably store cars in a school.”

Seems pretty appropriate for a place called the Motor City.

For the Environment Report, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

The Detroit Public School district has a list of all available school buildings up for sale or lease…but you won’t find any prices listed. That’s because the district wants you to make the first offer.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Raising Heritage Turkeys

  • John Harnois raises Narragansett turkeys, one of the so-called heritage breeds. He also raises a few Bourbon Reds, another heritage breed. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Eating turkeys to keep them from dying out…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

In honor of Thanksgiving… we’re revisiting a Michigan farmer who raises heritage turkeys. Those are turkeys that have a little bit of a wilder history. Some farmers are trying to keep these older turkey breeds from going extinct.


John Harnois has a yard full of turkeys. He says he knows his turkeys so well, he can speak their language.

“The turkeys pip, they bark, they gobble, (Harnois makes gobbling sound and turkeys respond in unison).”

These turkeys are mostly males. They’re trying to look all big and macho as they strut around in front of the hens. These birds are the Narragansett breed.

“They’re old time turkeys, much closer to wild. They don’t have the broad breasts, so proportionally for eating (turkeys gobble, Harnois laughs), they have more dark meat to white meat.”

People who’ve tasted a heritage turkey say the flavor is stronger too.

Sara Dickerman did some turkey taste testing for She tasted everything from the Butterball brand to kosher to heritage.

“When you taste one of these heritage breeds you’re getting more of a… it begins to taste more like a distinct meat and I’m afraid our vocabulary is so ill suited to describing it, except that it tastes meatier, it tastes more intensely and it just has a resonance that you’ll never get in a Butterball.”

She says, still, you’ve got to be pretty committed to buy a heritage turkey. They can cost upwards of a hundred bucks.

Taste and cost aren’t the only things that set heritage turkeys apart from the turkeys you find in the grocery store.

Your common grocery store turkey is a breed called the Broad-breasted White. These turkeys have been bred over the years to produce a lot of meat in a short period of time. As a result, they’re large breasted birds with short little legs.

John Harnois says that means they can’t mate naturally.

“One of the things about heritage birds is they’re small enough to mate as opposed to the broad-breasteds which is artificial insemination. With that big breast they just can’t do the deed.”

But even though heritage turkeys can mate naturally, they haven’t been doing so well on their own.

“These birds, the heritage breeds, were real close to dying out. It’s funny… you’ve gotta eat ‘em to keep ‘em going. To keep their genetics in the gene pool, there has to be a market for them.”

That’s where the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy stepped in. It’s a non-profit group trying to keep rare breeds from going extinct. Marjorie Bender is the group’s research manager. She says just three companies own the rights to the commercial turkey breeds.

“And they’re all very, very closely related and it’s that narrow genetic pool that has been of particular concern to us and what makes the conservation of these other lines of turkeys and these other varieties of turkeys so important.”


John Harnois says he is earning money from his heritage turkeys, but it’s not easy money. Heritage turkeys cost a lot to raise, and it takes longer to get them to market weight. And unlike the commercial turkeys, the heritage birds can actually fly the coop.

“You’re chasing them, and it’s dark out, and you don’t know if you’re going through poison ivy, if you’ve got shorts on you’ve gotta change your pants to long pants… it’s a pain.”

But he says the late night chases and extra turkey TLC are worth it.

“You don’t want everything being the same, and if you only have one thing and something happens to it, there’s no more. Where are the turkeys going to come from?”

He says he feels like it’s his job to make sure there will always be plenty of different kinds of turkeys to go around.

Happy Thanksgiving!

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.


  • Some members of the Goat Mowers team. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

So let’s say you’ve got a large piece of land that’s overgrown with weeds and brush. You could bring in big lawnmowers and bushhogs. But if you want something a little more low-key… you could rent a goat. Tanya Ott reports:

How to rent a goat or two near you

Colbert Report segment on landscaping goats

Legal blog on landscaping with goats

A related article from the Wall Street Journal

More about Goat Mowers


(nat sound of feeding the goats)

Todd and Allison Sluiss stand in their storybook perfect red barn in West Olive, Michigan, surrounded by goats.

(sound of Allison naming the goats)

It’s feeding time, and Todd throws down hay by the handful. A sign on the barn wall reads “Goats at Work” – and boy, are they ever! Todd and Allison got their first goat five years ago, as a pet. But then…

“We had some friends with some brush that they needed cleared and goats are really good at doing that. We got the equipment to set up some temporary fencing and we put the goats out there. And here we are.”

Word got out that the Sluiss’s had goats for hire.

“We’ve done it for a school, also some factories that have areas, say, in their green space that are overgrown that they want brought under control.”

Goats are perfect for the job. They can eat up to 8 pounds of green foliage a day and they prefer leaves and brush to grasses.

“Goats, actually, will eat poison ivy before they’ll eat the grass from your yard.”

In the southern U.S. they’re used to control invasive species like kudzu. In California, they’re used to clear underbrush on fire-prone hillsides.

“They’ll work in a really small area or steep or even hazardous areas where people may not want to. Lot of thorns or thistles or place you can walk through easily don’t faze them at all.”

Goats are so popular they’ve even attracted the attention of the Colbert Report – which recently pointed out some of the, um, drawbacks of using goats to clear land.

“That’s right, goat landscaping’s number one problem is “number two.” They come, they eat, they poop and they leave. I don’t think we’d ever poop on a jobsite.” (fade clip under)

Todd and Allison: “It all stays, it does. It breaks down in about a week. A lot like rabbit pellets do. Free fertilizer.”

There are potential drawbacks. Critics question the methane goats release into the air. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

They also say their hooves pit the soil, allowing rainwater to pool and weed seedlings to sprout.

Allison Sluiss counters that hoof marks are a lot less damaging than tread from heavy machinery. And that methane’s better than herbicides and other chemicals that might run-off into nearby water sources.

The Sluiss’s business – called Goat Mowers – has really taken off. Their herd is now 55 goats strong. They also use some sheep. Goats are browsers – they like bushes and overgrown weeds. Sheep have a taste for grass, so they’re much better for clearing yards.

The Sluiss crew has traveled as far as Indiana, Illinois and Ohio for work. There’s only on problem with the business plan – when the goats do their job right, there’s usually no need for a repeat visit. For the Environment Report, I’m Tanya Ott.

Thanks for Lindsey Smith for help with that story. If you want to learn more about renting a goat, we’ve got links on our website – as well as the full Colbert Report goat expose. You can also see a photo gallery of the Goat Mowers. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Michigan to Ban BPA?

  • Bisphenol-A lines the inside of most metal food and drink cans. (Photo courtesy of Sun Ladder at Wikimedia Commons)

Bisphenol-A or BPA – is a chemical that has been used for more than 40 years in food and beverage packaging. It can leach out of those packages and get into food and drinks. More than a hundred peer-reviewed studies have linked bisphenol-A to health problems. Until recently the Food and Drug Administration said that our current low levels of exposure to BPA were safe. But new studies have shown subtle effects of low doses of BPA in lab animals. Based on those studies, the FDA now says it has some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.
The six major baby bottle manufacturers have voluntarily removed BPA. But BPA is still used in the linings of almost every kind of food and beverage can…including canned liquid baby formula.

Nine states have passed laws to ban certain uses of BPA in children’s products… and Michigan could be next.

Democratic State Representative Mark Meadows from East Lansing has introduced a bill to ban BPA in children’s products, and he joins me now. Representative Meadows, why do you feel this is necessary?

Advice for parents from the Department of Health and Human Services

Related article from USA Today


Meadows: Well, I think the scientific research has shown us there is a danger particularly to children and infants with regard to BPA leaching into their systems and the result of that has been like a crescendo of scientific evidence that indicates it should be banned at least in those products.

What specific products are you targeting?

Meadows: We’re targeting anything that comes in contact with children and particularly those things which contain food items so that we would be assured that at least in younger people they wouldn’t be exposed to BPA. And I think there’s been a recognition in the industry that this is coming, although the major opponents to this legislation continue to be the chemical manufacturing concerns in the United States.

Have you had any reactions from those manufacturers?

Meadows: Yes, you know, Dow Chemical of course is a big employer in the state of Michigan and they’ve been adamantly opposed to this legislation. I think though that we made some changes to the legislation to try to address some of the issues they raised with regard to it.

What changes did you make?

Meadows: We made a few changes to limit the language. One of the exclusions is bike helmets, which we need the rigidity that’s produced by BPA in those things which provide a great protection to young people.

We’ve seen laws passed in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and six other states that ban certain uses of BPA in kids’ products. What have those laws accomplished so far?

Meadows: Well they have reduced the use of BPA products with regard to children in all of those states.

How quickly would companies have to come up with alternatives under your bill?

Meadows: I can’t remember the exact phase-in period, but they would have time to come up with alternatives. But in fact the testimony we received indicated that in fact those alternatives are available now.

So your bill has passed the House Great Lakes and Environment Committee. How much support do you believe you have to bring the bill up for a vote in the House?

Meadows: You know, we would bring the bill up for a vote in the House and I think it would pass handily in fact. But because of the nature of the lame duck session we’re in right now, I do not expect it to come up for a vote this year. I think it’ll be reintroduced in January and hopefully we’ll move it through committee again next year and get a vote on the floor for it.

Mark Meadows is a Democratic State Representative from East Lansing. He has introduced a bill to ban certain uses of the chemical bisphenol-A in children’s products. Thank you so much for your time.

Meadows: No problem.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Getting Fresh Air Into an Air Tight House

  • How an air exchanger works. (Diagram courtesy of Matt Grocoff)

For the past couple of years, we’ve been visiting Matt Grocoff’s house in Ann Arbor. He’s been working to make it the oldest net-zero home in America. That means when he’s finished, the house should produce as much energy as it uses. Lester Graham has an update:


Matt Grocoff’s home is 110-years-old. It was originally heated by coal… and had no insulation. Coal was cheap… so you could stoke that furnace all day long without much worry about heat escaping. These days energy is more expensive… and there are concerns about using fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

So, Matt is heating and cooling his house using a geo-thermal system. It uses a fraction of the energy that a gas or electric furnace would use. And… I’ve watched as Matt as worked to seal up every nook and cranny of the house. From attic, to walls, to windows to basement he’s insulated, caulked, used spray foam or found some other way to seal up his home. But… with everything so tight… he’s now got a bit of a problem. If it’s closed up, as during the winter, not enough fresh air can get in like it used to through drafty areas. That can cause the air to get stale.

MG: “A phrase I heard was ‘Insulate tight and ventilate right.’ If you’re sealing up your house so tight you’re no longer getting good quality fresh air in there, you’ve got to provide some mechanical ventilation when you’re running your air conditioner or heating system.”

LG: That would seem to defeat the purpose to me because now you’re going to be using electricity to ventilate a house because you’ve gotten it so tight.

MG: “Ahhh, that’s exactly where the energy recovery ventilator comes in. In a normal house what you’ll have is like a little bath vent that’s going to be sucking the stale air out of your house. But, with that stale air, you’re also blowing right out through your roof vents really warm, conditioned, expensive-to-heat air during the winter time. With the energy recovery ventilator, you can actually recover some of that lost energy and pay for the energy that it’s costing to run those fans.”

The energy recovery ventilator is not that big. It fits in a small space in his attic. It works kind of like a heat pump. As the contractor, Doug Selby explained it to me… it draws air out, but before it goes outside, the unit recovers much of the heat… and it’s the heat that costs you.

DS “With an energy recovery ventilator or a heat recovery ventilator, you can recapture up to 95-percent of the energy that you’ve already paid for once. And you can do that infinitely. The fact of the matter is, yes, these homes do need to breathe. But, the worst way you can do it is just by having an uninsulated, loose house that loses most of its energy out the attic and out the basement. And, you still end up with poor interior air quality and you’re not getting any benefit from that from an energy standpoint.”

So, you get fresh air… but you recycle almost all the heat.

Matt Grocoff says he’s spent quite a bit of money during the past couple of years reducing his energy consumption… but he looks at it as an investment. He says he’ll save money at a rate that’ll out-perform the stock market. In other words… the money he’ll save on energy costs will pay back the cost of the equipment and then some.

Now,he’s about to change gears. All this time he’s been working to reduce his energy usage. The next step… he’s going to produce energy.

MG: “Yes, we are now ready for solar panels because we will be efficient enough to produce more energy than we consume.”

LG: That’s Matt Grocoff with Greenovation-dot-TV. I’m Lester Graham with The Environment Report.

HOST TAG: The next time we visit Matt… we’ll bring you the story of putting up those solar panels… the final chapter of his work to become net-zero.
That’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Opening Up the Deer Hunting Season

  • Michigan conservation officials hope to expand the number of female deer killed in this year's hunt, but many hunters would much rather shoot bucks. Antlers are the big prize. (Photo by Scott Bauer - USDA)

Last year in Michigan, there were more than 60,000 car accidents caused by deer. Farmers say they can lose a lot of money when deer eat their crops. And there are deer munching on backyard gardens and even running down sidewalks.

Wildlife managers say there are just too many deer in the state. And they want hunters to help.

This fall the Natural Resources Commission is increasing the number of does hunters can kill in certain parts of the state. Especially in southern lower Michigan where there are lots of deer.

They hope that by reducing the number of does in the fall, there’ll be fewer fawns born in the spring… and eventually the deer population will swing back into balance.

Tips on avoiding a deer-car crash

More info about the new regulations (.pdf file)

A related Environment Report story on deer birth control


(sound of game area)

I met up with Brent Rudolph at the Rose Lake game area near East Lansing. He’s a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. He says the deer hunting rules are conservative in northwest Michigan and the UP… because there aren’t as many deer there. But he says southern Michigan has lots of deer.

“So in southern Michigan we have gone to allowing individual hunters to buy an unlimited number of antlerless licenses.”

Hunters can get five permits a day… with no cap on the number of does they can take in the season.

“A lot of people see that and think there’s going to be a dramatic surge and oh my gosh are they trying to eliminate the deer herd in southern Michigan? It’s not the case. We’ve had regulations close to and possibly even more liberal than that in the past.”

Rudolph says they actually expect most hunters won’t take advantage of the new rules. He says they set the quotas higher than they need to. They don’t expect to sell all the permits.

Rudolph says that’s because most hunters want a buck.

“They don’t head into the woods thinking they want to go manage their deer herd today. So they’re still in a lot of places a lot more interested in taking bucks, in the tradition of taking a deer with antlers on its head and we’re trying to get folks over that.”

Rudolph says it’ll probably take a few years to see how the new rules affect the deer population.

(sound of Cabela’s store)

Joe Ross is the general manager of the Cabela’s store in Dundee. He says hunting license sales are up.

“We don’t have the exact figures for it yet but we have seen a definite increase in interest in license sales especially with antlerless licenses so far this year.”

The customers we talked to had mixed feelings about the new rules.

Chad Chissom lives in the Thumb. He says he’ll be taking only does this year.

“I think that’s a good thing for around my property. We have a square mile. Yesterday I counted 98 does with one buck which was a spike horn. So I have quite the ratio that’s not correct.”

Some hunters said they prefer taking a buck, but might take a doe for the meat. Other hunters said the rules are way too liberal.

Danny Nagle hunts in northeastern Michigan. He hunts in one of the counties where there’s a problem with tuberculosis in wild deer. So the state’s been aggressively controlling the herd there.

“There’s no deer left. You can hunt two weeks without seeing a deer. You go up there, you spent a lot of money, you go up deer hunting and you don’t see any deer. It’s not a cheap trip, especially all the equipment you buy.”

Although not everybody likes the way deer are managed… state officials say hunting is the best tool they have to get deer under control.

The lower peninsula doesn’t have a significant wolf population. There just aren’t the natural predators there used to be. So it’s up to the state to come up with a management plan that makes hunters happy but also controls the deer.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Special thanks to Suzy Vuljevic for her help with this story.

Greenovation: A Hot Roof and a Cool Attic

  • Ann Arbor based Meadowlark Energy sprays foam onto Matt's attic ceiling creating a "hot roof" which ironically keeps the attic much cooler in the summer. (Photo by Matt Grocoff of

What happens if you seal up the leaks in your house… add a bunch of insulation… and then find out it’s too tight?

For a while now, we’ve been telling you about an attempt to make a 110-year old house in Michigan the oldest net-zero home in America. Net-zero means it uses no more energy than it produces. Lester Graham has the latest installment in our ongoing story.

A site where you can find an authorized energy auditor for your home

Matt Grocoff’s website, Greenovation TV

Tips on adding attic insulation from Energy Star

A Greenovation Story: New Storm Windows

A Greenovation Story: Fixing Old Windows

A Greenovation story: Spray Foam Your Home


Matt Grocoff is getting close to his goal. He’s been sealing up his drafty old house, restoring and tightening the windows, insulating everywhere possible. But he’s got to make a change. The house is so tight, he now needs an air exchanger to get some fresh air circulating, otherwise, the air would get too stale – too much CO2 and not enough oxygen.

He kinda knew eventually he’d have to have one, but wasn’t exactly sure what kind or where he’d have to put it. It turns out the attic is going to be the best space because of easy access to return air ducts. Since this project is all about energy efficiency, the air exchanger is a fancy energy-saving unit. We’ll talk about it more in our next report.

But first the attic has to be insulated at the roofline.

I’ve climbed up a stepladder to lift myself into the attic and peek at what’s going on. A guy in a hazmat-like suit and filter mask is spraying insulation foam on the underside of the roof.

If you think of the attic as the triangle shape at the top of the house… you’d usually insulate the bottom of the triangle to keep the rooms below warm. But, because of the new equipment Matt will be installing… the angled sides of the triangle need to be insulated. This is called a ‘hot roof.’

Doug Selby is with Meadowlark Energy. He’s the contractor for this job.

DS: “With a ‘hot roof,’ what we’re able to do is to insulate the actual roofline itself. So, it creates a conditioned space in the attic and what that does for us is seal a lot of the places where a house leaks naturally and it also creates a space where we can run our mechanicals without fear of losing a lot of that energy to the atmosphere.”

We’ll get to why that’s important in our next report on the energy efficient air exchanger that they’re installing.

But for now… let’s just say… it’s kinda cool to see this sticky foam sprayed on the underside of the roof… expand for a bit… and then harden into a sort of styrofoam that’s sealed every nook and cranny. Matt Grocoff says this is easier than it might sound.

MG: “You’re right, we’re spraying it into the rafters rather than laying the stuff onto the floor. And if you look for Greenovation TV on our Facebook page, you’ll be able to see some photographs that we’ve got up there and you’ll be able to see exactly how this stuff is installed and sprayed in and what it looks like when you’re done.”

It’s making a whole new usable space out of an attic that was not usable for much of anything.

Matt can finish it off with drywall, paint it, and then put down a floor. Voila! New space.

MG: “Well, that’s one of the cool things, is that we’re kind of fantasizing now about what we’re going to do with this extra space. And what we think we’d like to do is just have this little cozy space, we’ll put a little pull down ladder up in the attic and have a little yoga space or a little place with some cushions where we can read and stuff like that. And just make it a really cozy, quiet getaway up there in the attic that will be conditioned.”

LG: Matt Grocoff the Greenovation-dot-TV guy, doing yoga in his attic. Alright, thanks, Matt.

“My wife is the real yoga expert.”

We’ll look at the new air exchanger the Grocoffs will install in a small part of that attic space… next Tuesday on the Environment Report. I’m Lester Graham.

If you’re wondering how to make your house more energy efficient…. Matt recommends first getting an energy audit to find out where the leaks are in your house. You can find out how to do that and you can catch up on Matt’s adventures on our website: environment report dot org. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Michigan’s Environment and a New Administration

  • Governor-elect Rick Snyder says businesses are overburdened with regulation. What will this mean for environmental regulations in the state? (Photo from Snyder campaign website)

There wasn’t a lot of talk about environment during the race for governor, but Governor-elect Rick Snyder made it clear during the campaign that he thinks the state’s regulatory system is broken and said he wants fewer regulations on businesses. That has some people wondering whether that means there will also be fewer of the regulations that prevent pollution in the state.

A related article in the Lansing City Pulse


James Clift is here with me to talk about this. He’s the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. So do we know what to expect from the new governor?

Clift: It’s a little bit of a clean slate here. In his victory speech he talked about protecting and promoting the Great Lakes. We think that’s a good thing. He talked about the importance of revitalizing our central cities, including the city of Detroit. We hope to work with him on that. I’m a little concerned about some of his comments regarding regulations but we’re willing to work with him to make sure that unnecessary regulations are limited but the ones that are designed to protect the Great Lakes and the environment, we need to keep those in place.

There’s not only a new Republican governor, but the Michigan legislature is dominated by Republicans. They now have a supermajority in the Senate and a majority in the House. There’s this impression that Democrats tend to vote more favorably on environmental issues… has that actually proven to be the case?

Clift: In general, you see some of the innovation and ideas over the years come from the Democratic side of the aisle, but we’ve seen kind of broad, bi-partisan support for protecting the Great Lakes and our natural resources. So in times when – and this isn’t the first time that Republicans have controlled both chambers and have had the governorship – we haven’t seen a steep erosion. But you know, you have to watch things like funding levels for the departments to make sure that the people who are out there watching over our environment are properly staffed and funded to do so.

Some groups have expressed concern that a Snyder Administration would weaken protections on so-called factory farms. Do you think that’s likely to happen?

Clift: Most of these facilities are under permit today. Where I fear is kind of on the monitoring side. You know, are we doing enough monitoring to make sure that when these manure sludges are applied to fields that they’re not running into our rivers and streams.

Mr. Snyder said during the campaign that he would fast track permits for coal burning power plants. What would that mean for Michigan?

Clift: That’s a situation where I think he really does need to look closely at where’s the innovation occurring, how much innovation are we seeing in the renewable and energy efficiency areas? We need to keep our transition to clean energy going, because I think that’s what’s putting Michigan’s manufacturing base back to work, not some short-term construction jobs for a coal plant that will end up obligating Michigan ratepayers to buy more coal from out-of-state sources for the next 40 years.

During the campaign Mr. Snyder did express support for bringing more clean energy jobs to Michigan. Do you expect he’ll follow through on that?

Clift: I think he will. I mean, I do think this is where a lot of the venture capital is going these days. You’ve got some people doing just amazing work across the state. We’re using our automotive know-how and putting it toward clean energy. So we’re producing parts for wind turbines at a cost below the Chinese. A lot of really exciting things going on in that area and a lot of jobs being created in that area and I think he has to do everything he can to foster those gains we’ve made.

All right, well, thank you so much for your time.

Clift: Thank you very much.

James Clift is the policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

NIMBYs Derailing Bike Trails

  • A bike trail might one day take cyclists riding between Traverse City and Elk Rapids along Petobago Creek. (Photo by Peter Payette)

Why plans for rails to trails bike paths sometimes go off the tracks…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Michigan has more than 1,500 miles of bike paths.
Most were put in place through rails to trails programs. Those are trails that are created from former railroad corridors.
Now many communities are trying to connect the existing trails, so cyclists can ride cross-country over large regions of the state.
But as Peter Payette reports, the work is getting harder and bike trails are not always welcome.

Look up bike trails near you


In the foreseeable future you might be able to get from Harbor Springs to Traverse City on a paved bike path.
That’s about eighty miles.
There are few paved bike paths that long in the United States.

The question is how to route it.
One easy way would be to build a path alongside US-31. But the federal highway is not the most exciting route through the region.

You’d miss hidden gems like Petobago Creek.

“I don’t want to call it the best kept secret, but it’s far enough off it’s not where people normally come. If you know, you’ll come back multiple times. It’s very attractive here.”

That’s Dean Branson standing near the remains of an old bridge over Petobago.
Across the creek are a couple hundred acres of marshland that are designated a state game area.

A thick patch of woods separates us from the highway so the car noise is dampened.

Branson says this would be a perfect place for a bike trail.

“Family bikers really like to be further away, where they don’t hear the roads or the safety problems associated with fast cars. And this presents an opportunity for us to be quiet, out in nature.”

Branson has been working for years to connect Elk Rapids to Traverse City’s bike trail system.
It’s a project led by Rotary Club of Elk Rapids.
The hope is to eventually build north all the way to Charlevoix.

That would connect with the Little Traverse Wheelway, an existing bike trail that wraps around Little Traverse Bay to Harbor Springs.

The problem is there’s not a single railroad line that would make the connection.
And the railroad grades that do exist were abandoned years ago and now belong to adjacent property owners.

Eric Oberg, with Rails to Trails Conservancy says that is the situation for many trail groups these days.
Rather than deal with one railroad company, they have to deal with as many as 30 property owners in one mile.

“It only takes one person to say no I’m not interested in this at all and if they’re strategically located where you can’t get around them, your whole project gets derailed and you’re kind of back at square one, how do we get from A to B if we can’t go that way because one out of thirty said no?”

And sometimes property owners are not interested.

While some see a bike trail as a nice amenity even worth mentioning in a real estate listing, others see a trail as a path for endless strangers to invade their solitude.

Fifteen years ago in Leelanau County, opposition to a new trail was almost militant.
At one point someone stretched barbed wire across the pathway.
Someone else dug a ditch in the trail and a cyclist crashed and broke his shoulder.

Tim Brick owns Brick Wheels, a bike shop in Traverse City.
He says there’s more appreciation for bike paths today but he’s not sure everyone clearly sees the economic value of trails.

“If you look at a car going through Traverse City in the summer I would bet you seven out of ten of them got a bike rack on it. They come here to ride, because we have great trails, because we have nice places to ride. But, if you read Chamber of Commerce brochures you’d think all we do here is do wine tours and golf. And I’m telling you, a lot of people come here to cycle.”

And if trails are long enough they can attract national attention and become a destination where visitors can ride for days.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.