A Republican lawmaker says a bill that would stop local governments from regulating logging and mineral extraction on private property could create thousands of jobs.
But, some Monroe County leaders say it would limit their ability to protect valuable resources like limestone and the local water supply. It has people debating whether individual property rights and protecting natural resources are mutually exclusive.
Ellington: This Bill Is About Jobs, Property Rights
As you drive down the roads surrounding Lake Monroe, you’ll occasionally come across a few houses or mailboxes. But, what strikes you are the seemingly endless trees. It’s one of the things that draws people to this part of the state.
An Indiana businessman wants to eventually build a home on the property he owns along Lake Monroe, which is currently undeveloped. Joe Huff submitted a permit to log a portion of the land last year, but later withdrew the request. Huff’s attorney, Thomas Malapit, says his client worried the county plan commission would reject the permit. But, Huff could move forward with his plans for timbering if a proposal passes at the statehouse.
“As I see it, this bill is really a right for people to take care of their own land,” Malapit says.
Rep. Jeff Ellington (R-Bloomfield) laid out the specifics of his bill at a committee hearing this week. Among other things, it would stop all levels of local governments from regulating timber harvests or mineral extraction on private land.
“For me, this is a bill about jobs,” Ellington says. “Jobs not only for my local community, but throughout the state of Indiana. These mineral resources are deposited throughout.”
The legislation would essentially allow individuals or companies to log or extract minerals like limestone on any private property. Ellington says the bill would also make it easier for private landowners to adopt their own forestry and insect control practices, which could help prevent the spread of disease.
“As I see it, this bill is really a right for people to take care of their own land.”
But, there are questions about whether Ellington could stand to personally benefit from the proposal. He owns a tree service company, which he disclosed on the statement of economic interests state lawmakers have to fill out every year. Ellington insists he doesn’t do the type of work the bill would allow.
“I started out in saving people’s trees through disease and pest management,” Ellington says. “Those are residential customers. I don’t do any forestry production or timbering. Never have, never will.”
Regardless, the conflict of interest rules for legislators are broad. But, an ethics expert from Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne says, speaking more generally, just because the rules allow proposing bills that could positively impact a lawmaker’s personal interests, doesn’t mean it’s always ethical.
“If you have a legislator who either writes up, who drafts, who discusses and debates, who votes on legislation that works in his personal interest, then the concern is his judgement isn’t about his constituents’ interest, isn’t fulfilling the responsibilities he has to his constituents, but instead is a judgement that focuses on what’s good for him,” says Abraham Schwab, associate professor of philosophy at IPFW.
Schwab says, in general, it’s best for lawmakers to recuse themselves from drafting or voting on legislation that could benefit their own interests.
Wilson: We Have A Lot Of Concerns
During the bill’s hearing in committee this week, much of the conversation centered around Monroe County. Larry Wilson is the director of the county’s planning department, which regulates some logging and mineral extraction. He testified in opposition to the proposal.
“We have a lot of concerns on this and how it would impact the industry locally,” Wilson says.
Monroe County has nearly 6,500 acres designated solely for extracting limestone and other minerals. The county is considering expanding that zone to include another 500 acres. People can’t build houses or businesses in those areas.
“This creates a buffer for mineral extraction activity,” Wilson says. “It preserves the limestone activities for the longterm. And, it also alerts homeowners that, ‘hey, if you’re moving next to this mineral extraction zone, there may be activities that will bother you.’”
“That’s not to say we don’t use the resources, but that they be managed and they be done in a way that they do not cause adverse impacts either to public resources or adjacent private property owners.”
Wilson says the house bill would prevent the county from confining mineral extraction to certain areas.
The county also has logging regulations that are meant to help protect Lake Monroe from erosion and practices that could hurt the water quality. The lake serves as the drinking water supply for the area.
Wilson thinks it’s important to talk about timber and minerals, but he wants to see the issue studied.
“We ought to look at how we manage these resources,” he says. “And, that’s not to say we don’t use the resources, but that they be managed and they be done in a way that they do not cause adverse impacts either to public resources or adjacent private property owners.”
Amendments added to the bill this week could also prevent local governments from regulating excavating, mining, drilling and other movement or removal of earth below ground level.
But, the bill passed out of committee this week. It has the support of several powerful organizations, including the Indiana Builder’s Association, Indiana Farm Bureau and the Forestry and Woodland Owners Association.
Malapit says while the focus of the debate is on Monroe County, the change would impact Hoosiers all over the state. He sees it as an opportunity for them to do what they want with what they already own.
“I can’t imagine a government stepping in, and I have my own land, and I’ve discovered I’ve got some sort of mineral rights on that property, and then local government try to step in and try to regulate what I can do with those local mineral rights,” he says.
The fate of his client’s logging plans could depend on the fate of Ellington’s bill.