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We in the Grand Traverse Region value few things more than our access to wonderful outdoor recreation. Our beautiful natural landscape is a primary reason many of us choose to live here and the number one reason many more flock to the area every year. It is the key to a prosperous future, and community leaders have recognized this for decades by making wise and strategic investments to preserve what we value most.

The recent discussion by Grand Traverse County officials regarding the potential sale of cherished county-owned land to address pension debt is deeply troubling and misguided. The value of these lands far exceeds the dollars and cents on a ledger.

Fortunately, selling off two of our of region’s crown jewels forever protected by conservancies – Maple Bay Natural Area on East Grand Traverse Bay and Power Island in West Grand Traverse Bay – is not only unwarranted, but also unfeasible.

The 452-acre Maple Bay Natural Area (located along North US31 between Traverse City and Elk Rapids), which the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) helped the county acquire in 2002, carries significant restrictions because it was purchased with a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) grant. The legally-binding MNRTF grant terms specify that the land must be used for public outdoor recreation in perpetuity. The only way the land can be sold is if a suitable substitute of “equal or greater fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location” is acquired by the county for public use.

Needless to say, there is no place comparable to Maple Bay and its pristine East Bay shoreline, and the requirement that equivalent land be purchased negates any benefit of selling the land. It should also be noted that because GTRLC manages Maple Bay, the county incurs little management expense.

Maple Bay is further protected by the federal Wetlands Reserve Program. While this wouldn’t prohibit the county from selling the land, it does permanently restrict any development or activity that harms valuable wetlands on the property.

Power Island is another popular and beautiful jewel that carries restrictions against its sale. The Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy helped the county acquire the island in 1975 for use as a public park; the lead gift from Eugene and Sayde Power gave the island its name. The deed to that property specifies that it must be “preserved in perpetuity as a public wilderness park.”

While county commissioners mull how best to address their pension fund woes, they must be aware of legally binding restrictions that prevent shortsighted actions; they must also be aware of the high value this community places on public recreation areas, now and for the future.

In light of the degree to which Grand Traverse County has benefited from millions of dollars in state and federal grants earmarked for natural resource protection, it would be unwise for our commissioners to jeopardize the potential for future grants by sending signals that they do not value these extraordinary past investments that have created a legacy of which we can all be proud.

This op-ed first appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle forum.

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