Faculty voice:

Bob Wilson: Trust in trails

Bob Wilson served for 28 years a senior policy adviser in the Michigan Senate where he helped write Michigan’s environmental and conservation laws, ranging from the Great Lakes Basin Compact to the State Park Recreation Passport to invasive species prevention laws. Wilson has been teaching environmental law and policy to MSU students in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources since 2000. In that capacity, Wilson brings real-world policy and law issues to his students and challenges them to become citizen-stewards and advocates for conserving natural resources. Today, Wilson is the executive director of Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, the state’s premier trail-building organization.

When I was an avid trail runner in the 1980s, Michigan’s trails played a significant role in my life. I owned a running store in East Grand Rapids where I hosted weekly runs on the Cannonsburg game trails. Additionally, I coached cross country at Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, and I would regularly use area trails for my runners. When I later moved to the Michigan Senate, I helped to craft the foundation for the state’s first trailways legislation that today forms the basis of our state’s growing and nation-leading trails system.

Today, as executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, I have continued to help build our state’s trails and act as an advocate before the legislature for trails policy. In the environmental law classes I teach at MSU, I include one specific module on the land use value of trails, which includes having a deeper understanding of Michigan’s fundamental history and its support for natural resources that is evident in so many symbols of the state.

One such symbol is the state’s flag, which was adopted in 1911, and contains three Latin mottos: “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one), “Tuebor," ("I will defend") and “Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice," ("If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you."). Taken together they embrace an enduring commitment to preserve and celebrate the natural grandeur of the state, its history and its people.

I also cover the 1962 Constitutional Convention where delegates gathered in Lansing to frame a proposed Constitution. The delegates specifically recognized that it was the legislature’s duty to protect and maintain the public health and welfare of the natural resource base for the benefit of the people of the state. The end result of these debates was the eventual adoption of Article IV, sections 51 and 52 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963:

“The public health and general welfare of the people of the state are hereby declared to be matters of primary public concern. The legislature shall pass suitable laws for the protection and promotion of the public health.”

“The conservation and development of the natural resources of the state are hereby declared to be of paramount public concern in the interest of the health, safety and general welfare of the people. The legislature shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction.”

Both of these provisions contain language that is remarkably consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine, which was first developed as a Roman Code to protect access to navigable waters, it was further developed later in both English and Colonial law. Common law in the United States has consistently maintained the Public Trust Doctrine exists to protect the public’s long term access to a healthy and sustainable resource base. This affirmative duty to protect access rests with the government and has been applied to surface water, bottomlands, scenic lands and historical/archaeological resources. All of these resources are capable of being protected from alienation, dilution and diminution.

Michigan’s special lands and waters are deserving of this public trust and in times of threats from our federal government that seeks to homogenize each state’s uniqueness, we must remind our policymakers that Michigan has much to gain or lose in this challenge.

Michigan’s significant land and water trails program, a partnership of federal, state and local efforts and supported specifically by our state’s legislature is a refreshing reminder that we can all take part in conserving the natural resources and public health pursuant to our Constitution. As we place our trust in trails and the people that build them, we all can play an active role in keeping our lands and waters open to sustainable access for our citizens. Building and maintaining trails for public health, greenways and open space, preserving our sense of place of history and culture are all benefits of this multi-faceted effort.

As we face new challenges and opportunities, isn’t it fitting for the citizens of this state to embark on a renewed journey to maintain the special place that we call Michigan by recognizing, respecting and supporting this special trust in our trails; this land and water conservation program that truly defines our state and the citizens who call it home?