Does the state own too much land? No, and here's why: A primer on Michigan's land strategy and how to be heard

The state is on a fast-track to developing a land plan required by the Michigan Legislature as a condition of potentially removing caps on acquiring more state-owned land. MEC's Brad Garmon has provided this helpful overview for MEC member organizations and others interested in tracking or influencing this process.

What is the "Land Plan"?

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is accepting public input on a draft document outlining a proposed strategy to guide how the state acquires, manages and sells public lands. The plan is a requirement of Public Act 240, the so-called "land cap" law that was passed in 2012. It strictly limits how much acreage the DNR can own. According to the law, the acreage cap can be lifted if the DNR develops a land strategy that is approved by the legislature.

More on the Land Cap can be found here, here and here.

What is the "land strategy" process and where are we now?

The "land cap" law gave the state until October, 2014, to come up with a draft plan, but the Governor has tightened the timeframe, giving the DNR until next month (May).

The DNR assembled the current draft in a few short months, pulling in many of the department staff to help and meeting three times with a "stakeholder" advisory group that included MEC, MUCC, Parks and Recreation professionals, and representatives from timber, oil and gas industries.

The DNR is currently presenting the draft plan at regional meetings around the state and in focus groups with local and regional economic development professionals and key leaders. The schedule of public meetings can be found on the DNR's land strategy website, along with a ton of maps and background information.

In addition to the public meetings below, written comments on the draft strategy will be accepted until April 30 at: [email protected]

Too much land?

We at MEC hear all the time from legislators who say that the DNR owns "too much land." The primary reasoning behind this argument is that the DNR either 1) doesn't have the money to properly care for what it has, or 2) the locals are not being compensated fairly for the land, i.e., the DNR isn't going to allow them to develop the land and yet it's not paying local property taxes like private landowners would.

Both arguments seem pretty flimsy to us, especially coming from the legislature (i.e., the folks who are responsible for appropriating enough money to pay the local governments their full Payments in Lieu of Taxes to replace tax revenue that otherwise might have been generated on the land, and who have cut nearly all general fund support for the DNR, forcing them into a "pay to play" model that too often favors revenue-generating activities over good natural resource policy).

Accurate or not, those two arguments were the driving forces behind the draft land strategy that's currently out for review. But more importantly, we think both questions miss the point - why does the DNR own land?

What are we talking about when we say "public land?"

There are lots of different owners of "public land" in Michigan, from your local parks department to the National Park Service. But the conversation in Michigan right now is all about the DNR, which currently "owns" about 4.6 million acres of land.

The DNR has about 100 State Parks catering to campers, swimmers and travelers, and various game areas and recreation areas for hiking, biking and hunting among other activities. But by a long shot the vast majority of DNR land (more than 3.5 million acres) is timberland, and it's all in the northern reaches of the state. The entirety of the parks and recreation system that most of us will know and use, by contrast, amounts to about 350,000 acres-barely a tenth of the state forest system.

So in reality, the big number - 4.6 million acres -- that legislators like to throw around doesn't tell the true story.


State forests are managed primarily for the benefit of the wood products industry. The bulk of that land came into state control through tax reversion in the early 1900s after it was logged, burned and essentially abandoned by the private sector. Michigan became one of the nation's foremost conservation leaders by thoughtfully and carefully reforesting and stewarding this massive resource for the last 100 years. Locals who complain about their reduced tax revenue rarely consider that they weren't getting taxes at all when that "waste" land fell into the DNR's lap 100 years ago because no one wanted anything to do with it.

And despite reports to the contrary, the timber industry really likes that the state owns and manages timberland. The DNR does a good job of putting foresters, wildlife biologists and other experts in the field every day to mark trees for harvest, to ensure the forest is healthy and productive, and to do all the other things that small, private forest owners just don't and can't do. (In fact, the state is creating new incentive programs right now in hopes of encouraging even a few more small, private forestland owners to put their trees up for sale-something the DNR reinvests between $30-$40 million doing every year, to the great benefit of the wood products industry)

On the other side-in the fraction of state land owned and managed primarily for recreation-the story is different. There's no unified group advocating for recreation. It's every lone birdwatcher, mountain biker, hiker, kayaker and family camping tripper that enjoys and appreciates the assets.

What these mostly low-intensity recreational users have is the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF), which was established by voters in the 1970s and provides funds to the state and local governments to buy recreational land and develop recreational infrastructure (funded from royalties and payments from oil and gas).

And that fund has taken a beating in the legislature lately. Why? Because when it filled up its savings account at $500 million dollars in recent years, it became the pot o' gold that all the legislators want to raid in order to pay for other things on their long priority lists. And if they can convince the public that the state "has enough public land" then they can steal it.

But in reality, MNRTF land purchases are miniscule compared to the vast bulk of state forests owned and managed by the DNR. Most Trust Fund acquisitions are little pieces of land that are key trail connections, or small but beautiful coastal dunes, or "inholdings" of private land that come up for sale inside or adjacent to a recreation area, or new ball diamonds at your city park. They don't and never will add up to a substantial land base compared to the state forest system.

For comparison, take a look at Grand Haven State Park on Michigan's West Coast. It attracts more than a million visitors every year, has been listed on "best beaches in the US" lists . . . and it occupies a grand total of 48 acres. Granted, it's hard to keep track of numbers this small, but I think that's 0.00097 percent of Michigan DNR's total land base.

So when legislators try to say the "state owns too much land," and point to that big number - 4.6 million acres-they really, really don't want you to look to closely at what's inside that total. They just want you to agree that state has enough, and hand over the keys to the MNRTF treasure chest.

Which brings us back to the DNR Land Strategy. The draft strategy, currently out for public comment, is supposed to do a lot of things, but mostly it needs to justify, in the Governor's terms, ""why we have , what we're doing with it and where it's going in the future, and how we're the best stewards of it. It's time to step back and come up with a strategic plan for public lands in the state of Michigan."

Right now, the draft calls for:

  • More public access opportunities on lakes rivers
  • More blocks of public land nearer to the state's cities;
  • Reviewing for potential "disposal" approximately 240,000 acres of DNR-managed public lands that are smaller in size and/or disconnected from other larger state ownership blocks.
  • More timber sales and more mineral, oil and gas leasing on state land
What the strategy doesn't really do, and needs to do, is help Michigan's leaders understand one key thing: we don't own too much land. We own a lot of some land that serves some very key industries in some places, and very little land that serves the rest of the recreating populace in the other places, and we certainly don't have too much of everything.

What does MEC think of the draft Land Strategy today?

In our read, the plan has a lot of good things. Here are a few obvious hits:

  • Increase by 25% amount of land available for public recreation with an emphasis on creating more recreational access for people in the southern part of the state, especially around our cities. No, not everyone can live in Traverse City, but everyone should get the chance to feel like they do when it comes to nearby lakes, forests and recreational opportunities.
  • Getting more access to our waterways - Michigan's Great Lakes and inland waters are our calling card in the world and need to take center stage in more public land conversations.
  • Connecting the concept of public recreational land to regional economic development strategies. When Michigan starts to protect and promote its outdoor assets as a vital part of its work to attract young people, creative class workers and high tech companies, we'll be in a better place environmentally and economically (see The Great Waters or The Wilds of Michigan initiatives in the Upper Peninsula for some of the best examples of communities understanding, protecting and promoting their natural assets as centerpieces of a New Economy identity)
But it also misses the mark in some areas, and likely fails to meet the demands the legislature laid out in its PA 240. Here's our read on a few misses:
  • Criteria for decision-making, especially for what review criteria will be used to decide what land to sell and buy, is totally missing. The plan talks a lot about selling land and consolidating boundaries and staying focused on securing "high-value recreational land" but none of those are defined; most are put off to an internal DNR process to be developed later. When it comes to selling public land, the DNR needs to have a really well thought-out rationale and it needs public buy-in. And in order to get this cap lifted, we need a plan that the legislature will approve, which means concrete criteria they can understand.
  • Land is treated in economic terms (timber harvest, mineral leases) but broader benefits are largely ignored. What value do we put on the role of public land in curbing sprawl, or protecting groundwater recharge areas, or managing stormwater runoff, or preventing development of iconic sand dunes? What value is a healthy, resilient forest that survives the next invasive species? The State of New York, for example, owns much larger amounts of "public" land than Michigan, but it's mostly held to ensure safe drinking water in perpetuity for the residents of New York City. Many of these "ecosystem services" are critical to Michigan's future, and make good economic sense. But these other "public land" benefits are not considered in this draft plan.
  • We need stronger goals for things that are simply good policy, such as our role as stewards of natural diversity. Avoiding a negative outcome, such as "Preventing corrective action requests in meeting state forest certification of maintaining biodiversity" is not a good enough goal for something that should Michigan should be embracing vigorously and positively, in the tradition of our conservation forbearers like P.S. Lovejoy, Genevieve Gillette and P.J. Hoffmaster.
  • The draft strategy doesn't really provide a sense of how Michigan's public land offerings truly compare to other states. Michigan may have more state-owned timberland than other states, but there's less land owned and managed for recreation. We need to start finding more creative ways to crunch the numbers within the 4.6 million acres. For example, how much public land offers great hiking, mountain biking or kayaking within a 40 minute drive of downtown Denver, Colorado (a state that attracts talented young entrepreneurs by the busload)? How does that number compare to Downtown Detroit? I put this report about the economic impacts of public lands out West into the hands of DNR Director Keith Creagh (twice actually) because it suggests a completely different way of understanding and valuing public land, and I'm hoping he's reading it. You should, too.
  • Metrics are a challenge for the DNR. The data that we have about how people use, value and benefit from public lands is sketchy at best. The data that we do have is dominated by activities that require licenses or permits - a product of the legislature cutting general fund support for DNR and pushing everyone into a "pay to play" model. That's why you see much more focus in this report, and others, on ORVs, snowmobiles, hunters, mineral leases and timber harvests than on other uses, such as hiking, wildlife viewing or "dispersed" backcountry camping. Tracking, surveying and articulating the impact of all users is going to be a real challenge going forward because the political pendulum swings toward the activities, amenities and assets that can show a clear economic or social benefit - and we're not tracking big components of the outdoor community at all.
4.6 million is a big number. But it's a number that hides the local story of your experiences and the places that matter most to you, the "general" recreational enjoyer of public land - the day hikers, bikers, the trail runners, nature lovers, mushroom hunters. There are scores of you out there, but mostly we don't know how to estimate your impact - economic or otherwise - on the demand for public land in Michigan. We need you to pay attention. Yours are the numbers that will help the DNR make sense of the "land cap" fight - and understand what we're really talking about when we talk about public land.





The Land Cap Law

PA 240 of 2011 states that:

By October 1, 2014, the department shall develop a written strategic plan to guide the acquisition and disposition of state lands managed by the department, submit the plan to the senate and house committees with primary responsibility for natural resources and outdoor recreation and the corresponding appropriation subcommittees, and post the plan on the department's website. In developing the plan, the department shall solicit input from the public and local units of government. The strategic plan shall do all of the following:

a)     Divide this state into regions.

b)     Identify lands managed by the department in each region.

c)     Set forth for each region measurable strategic performance goals with respect to all of the following for land managed by the department:

  • Maximizing availability of points of access to the land and to bodies of water on or adjacent to the land.
  • Maximizing outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Forests.
  • Wildlife and fisheries.
d)     To assist in achieving the goals set forth in the strategic plan, identify all of the following:
  • Land to be acquired.
  • Land to be disposed of.
  • Plans for natural resource management.
e)     To the extent feasible, identify public lands in each region that are not managed by the department but affect the achievement of the goals set forth in the strategic plan.

f)       Identify ways that the department can better coordinate the achievement of the goals set forth in the strategic plan pursuant to subdivision (c), recognizing that public lands are subject to multiple uses and both motorized and nonmotorized uses.

Before May 1, 2015, the department shall not acquire surface rights to land if the department owns, or as a result of the acquisition will own, the surface rights to more than 4,626,000 acres of land.

Beginning May 1, 2015, the department shall not acquire surface rights to land north of the Mason-Arenac line if the department owns, or as a result of the acquisition will own, the surface rights to more than 3,910,000 acres of land north of the Mason-Arenac line. It is the intention of the legislature, if the legislature approves the strategic plan, to amend this section to remove the limitations.




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