To praise and protect: holiday thoughts on Michigan's public lands

Michigan's woodlands and waters are warming up, breaking into bloom, and will welcome thousands into their spring-into-summer embrace this beautiful holiday weekend. For me, our annual outdoor awakening brings to mind two simple observations about Michigan's public lands.

1. They are awesome.

Case in point: I have the privilege of working with the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council to advise the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on management of the largest block of contiguous public land in Michigan's Lower Peninsula. It's a job I take seriously, and I've taken some time learning and hoping to understand the place.

I spent Wednesday afternoon poking around the 105,000 acres on foot and by four-wheel drive, and was witness to: three elk crashing away into shadowy trees; a clear small stream bubbling as wind whispered high in tall pines above; and an old log shelter perched atop a broad river valley with blue skies stretching away without end. Trillium in bloom, birds chirping spring through the aspen groves, mushroom hunters prowling the miles of two-tracks and logging roads.

This trip, like too many in my full-time, new-dad lifestyle, was squeezed into the scant few hours before an evening meeting. The PRC is huge, its ecological communities and landscapes ranging from dark cedar swamps to warm, sandy ridges baking in sunlight. In half a dozen such trips over the last year or so-a few camp nights, a handful of slow drives, some long talks and longer hikes, a few books and a winter trail run-I know I've barely scratched the surface of the Pigeon River Country. Such places are rich, deep and challenging, and reward nothing so much as time and careful attention.

What makes the PRC special is hard to define, but I'm glad it's there to explore. I look forward to watching it change and evolve not over seasons or years, but over decades. It's a place that I hope my own kids and grandkids will learn and explore someday. The advisory council is celebrating 40 years of volunteer stewardship of this forest, and the DNR as always is working to manage each of these acres to satisfy a wide range of economic, ecological and social demands.

It's more than a beautiful place; it's a project in democracy and science, enjoyment and restraint. In other words, it epitomizes the hope of a public trust, of our opportunity to exert a collective stewardship of a landscape and place whose protection and perseverance demands something in terribly short supply in public policy today: a truly long view.

2. They are imperiled.

Much conversation in Lansing's legislative and administrative committee rooms over the past several years has been guided by a single question: How much public land is enough? It's the wrong question, but nevertheless has given us a cap on state-owned land, a new state land plan and--for the first time in Michigan's history--a seriously considered proposal to sell a big chunk of our state forest.

Under the so-called "Graymont land transaction," as was reported in the media early this week, the state has been seriously considering an offer sell about 10,000 acres of state forest land in the Eastern Upper Peninsula to a limestone mining company. Mining is not new to Michigan. And at this point, it isn't my biggest concern. What troubles me is selling such big blocks of public land (as opposed to retaining ownership and leasing the mineral rights); state Forest Chief Bill O'Neill suggests he's not aware of a sale on this scale: "We've purchased land of that size," he told reporters, "but I don't know that we've ever sold land of that many acres."

To make the sale happen, the state would have to call the land officially "surplus" to the DNR's mission of providing public recreation, stewarding our best cultural and ecological assets and providing timber to support a natural resources economy. The 10,000 acres at stake in the Graymont proposal score high on all three counts. If this land can be declared surplus, I would be hard-pressed to find an acre of public land that couldn't be - including places like the Pigeon River Country.

It's a scary proposition, and the state shouldn't have taken this proposal as seriously as it has. Hundreds or maybe thousands of staff hours have been spent analyzing this thing in what O'Neill described as a "complicated analysis." Taking this offer seriously, and devoting valuable staff and resources to it, simply gives credence to those who think public ownership of land is a drag on the economy rather than an asset. The state should send a clear message with a simple "no" to this sale, and they should do it sooner rather than later.

Otherwise, we'd best prepare to battle for every acre of state land we love, because we'll never know when a deep-pocketed buyer might come forward with an offer. And if every offer has to be as seriously studied and considered as this Graymont boondoggle, it's bad news for the hard-working staff of the DNR, and worse news for lovers of Michigan's public lands.

The DNR is taking comment on the Graymont sale here.


Photo: The "Honeymoon Cabin" in the Pigeon River Country by Brad Garmon.

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