TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- Describing how he'll approach his new job as director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quailty, Dan Wyant offered an illustration that would warm a policy wonk's heart: farmland "filter strips."
Farmers can protect water quality by putting vegetation buffer zones between their cropland and nearby streams, he said. These so-called filter strips prevent sediments and chemicals from washing into waterways. By encouraging the practice and seeking financial support for it from the federal government and private foundations, the DEQ could boost clean water and agriculture while also expanding wildlife habitat.
"That's a classic example of how to grow the economy and protect the environment," he said in an Associated Press interview. "In these tough financial conditions, we have to . find these win-win scenarios."
Wyant's reference to filter strips is hardly surprising for a man who spent nine years as director of the state Department of Agriculture. It also offers a revealing insight into how he -- and his boss, Gov.-elect Rick Snyder -- plan to conduct environmental policy after taking office in January.
During his campaign, Snyder pledged to make safeguarding Michigan's waters, air, forests and other natural resources a top priority. Yet he also echoed business groups' complaints that the state's economy was suffering because of burdensome environmental regulations and heavy-handed bureaucrats.
"The excessive focus on enforcement and frivolous administrative delays make it nearly unbearable to do business," his campaign website said.
Wyant, who will lead the DEQ as well as a "Quality of Life" super-cabinet group also including the departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture, insists that economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.
The Snyder administration will be pragmatic and innovative, he said, seeking cooperation instead of confrontation between regulators and citizens while developing partnerships involving government, businesses, nonprofit groups, scientists and others. Environmental laws and rules will stay on the books, but officials will try harder to help people comply before filing lawsuits or criminal charges for violations. Snyder also wants to streamline an environmental permitting process that is too slow and complicated, Wyant said.
"Environmental stewardship is an ethic that Michigan is known for and that will be a priority," he said. "That said, I think you can manage the department in a way that you can still grow the economy. I don't think it's either-or."
Business groups have responded enthusiastically to Snyder's approach and his appointments of Wyant as DEQ head and Rodney Stokes, a veteran Department of Natural Resources administrator, as that department's director. Gov. Jennifer Granholm merged the two departments this year to save money, but Snyder plans to divide them once again.
"We're hoping they will change some of the culture" in regulatory agencies and "have them focus on being more customer oriented," said Doug Roberts, environmental policy director for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Environmentalists are wary -- especially about Wyant, with whom they sometimes clashed during his tenure as agriculture chief under former Gov. John Engler.
"A lackluster choice," said David Holtz, executive director of ProgressMichigan, "and a potentially dangerous one if his track record with the Engler administration is any clue to how he will enforce anti-pollution laws."
In the late 1990s, Wyant helped establish a voluntary program offering certification to farms that qualify as ecologically sustainable. Supporters say it's effective, but environmentalists say it's no substitute for strong regulations that all must follow.
Critics also say Wyant went to bat for industrial livestock farms that pollute waterways with raw animal sewage, asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to halt an investigation of possible Clean Water Act violations.
Wyant said a voluntary approach to sustainable agriculture is exactly the kind of cooperative partnership he favors. But the state has adopted regulations and permit requirements for large-scale livestock operations and he promised the DEQ under his leadership would continue to enforce them.
"The industry has evolved and we're not turning the clock back," he said, adding that despite the administration's business-friendly mindset, "we will not be a shill for bad actors."
Whether that's true will depend on whether officials are allowed to do their jobs and enforce the law, said Anne Woiwode, director of the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. Complaints about permit delays and overzealous regulators are largely based on anecdotes and half-truths, she said, describing the DEQ as so short-staffed and underfunded that only the worst violators or most poorly designed projects meet resistance.
Steve Chester, who was DEQ director under Granholm before the merger with the DNR, said the department has streamlined the application process for some permits, including air quality and storm water. He encouraged Wyant to continue such efforts but said the DEQ routinely approves most applications.
"It boils down to whether streamlining means a genuine effort to eliminate waste or is just code for gutting regulatory protections," he said.
Staffing and money shortfalls will be big challenges for the DEQ, Chester said. When Wyant takes office, the department will have about 1,100 employees, down from 1,460 in 1997.
That's why public-private partnerships and innovation will be so essential to carrying out the department's mission, Wyant said. The DEQ might seek higher permit fees to bolster its budget, but legislators have shown little enthusiasm for that.
Although Snyder is a newcomer to government and Wyant has little experience with environmental policymaking, both have served as trustees with the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy, an advocacy group that prefers non-confrontational approaches such as buying ecologically sensitive lands or seeking owners' cooperation in protecting them.
Rich Bowman, the conservancy's Michigan government relations director, said its philosophy appears to have influenced the new governor and DEQ director.
"We don't sue people," Bowman said. "There's nothing wrong with suing people; it's just that other groups do that and we don't. That forces us to find solutions. I think Rick Snyder and Dan Wyant are interested in finding solutions and moving forward."