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Five themes to watch as Michigan reconsiders its use of public lands

Michigan land managers are about to reopen their public lands playbook, making revisions that will guide the next six years of decisions about where the state owns land, and how it manages the land it owns. 

Among the decisions they’ll ponder: Should Michigan get rid of some properties that don’t serve the state’s goals? Where can the state buy new land to increase outdoor recreation opportunities in southern Michigan, where most Michiganders live but state lands are comparatively sparse? And how can the state make public lands, whose users skew whiter and wealthier, more welcoming to all? 

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources just wrapped up a round of outreach to key interest groups as it works to update the public lands strategy it drafted in 2013. State land managers are also encouraging the public to weigh in. Michiganders will have a chance to review and comment on a draft plan in January.

The DNR manages 4.6 million acres of public lands, from Belle Isle Park in Detroit to the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula. It also manages 6.4 million acres of mineral rights.

While state-owned public lands offer access to recreational opportunities, hunting grounds and natural resources, state land ownership can also be a contentious topic. 

Indeed, Michigan’s land plan came about as a result of a 2012 law that briefly capped the amount of land Michigan could own, following complaints from some public officials that the state’s vast land holdings in Northern Michigan were hindering local economic development. 

State officials and representatives of local governments and other key interest groups told Bridge Michigan they don’t expect talks of a cap to resurface as the state revamps its plan in the coming months. But there’s still plenty to debate. 

Here are five key themes likely to emerge as Michigan revisits its public lands playbook: 

1) Debates over land ownership in Northern Michigan 

DNR’s existing public land strategy calls for a statewide review of its land ownership in Michigan, with the goal of consolidating public lands and eliminating “checkerboards” of inholdings (private land inside the boundary of government land). 

That process is underway and will continue under the new plan, said Scott Whitcomb, DNR senior adviser for wildlife and public lands.

Rather than focusing on how much land Michigan should own, Whitcomb said the review is intended to “right-size” state land inventories on a local basis, with input from local governments. 

The state is reviewing its ownership of smaller, isolated parcels throughout the state  — about 240,000 acres in all — with a goal of shedding those that may not serve a key public purpose. 

In general, the state will consider getting rid of properties smaller than 200 acres that don’t connect to other state lands, along with properties that lack public access, properties that are hard to manage, and larger properties that can be exchanged for other, more desirable properties. 

Meanwhile, the state looks for opportunities to buy private properties that fragment state forests and other state lands. A separate review process will narrow down the areas where the state prioritizes land for acquisition.

As state land managers work through that process, they are likely to hear a familiar argument from some local officials in Northern Michigan who argue that excess state land ownership prevents development that could boost local property tax revenue. 

The state pays local governments annual fees, known as payments in lieu of taxes, to offset that property tax hit. But Deena Bosworth, director of governmental affairs for the Michigan Association of Counties, said it doesn’t compare to the tax value of a developed property. 

However, said Judy Allen, director of government relations for the Michigan Townships Association, many local governments see nearby state lands as an asset that brings tourism dollars to their communities. Allen said the state’s county-by-county approach to assessing its land ownership is a fair way to ensure that local communities have a say. 

“It’s always a question: how much land Michigan should own,” said Allen. “The answer is viewed differently in different parts of the state.”

The Michigan League of Conservation Voters will also be watching the process closely to make sure the state doesn’t offload parcels that are important to recreation or conservation, said Nicholas Occhipinti, the group’s government affairs director. 

“We definitely support the strategy of purchasing inholdings and making public land more contiguous,” Occhipinti said. “In general, we don’t like the idea of dumping public land, but we understand that a balance must be found.”

2) Bolstering access in southern Michigan

The pandemic has underscored the need for more nature closer to Michigan’s population centers, Whitcomb said. 

Health and recreation officials are encouraging outdoor activities close to home during the pandemic to avoid spreading COVID between communities. But in Michigan, the vast majority of public land is in the northern part of the state, away from where most people live. 

Whitcomb said the state is focused on obtaining land in southern Michigan, but “so much of that land has been developed, those larger blocks are really hard to come by.”

“We’re really just waiting for a large farm to be divested...and we can get an opportunity to purchase it,” he said.

Amy Trotter, executive director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said her members also are focused on increasing access to public hunting lands in southern Michigan, which she called a “public lands desert.” 

Private lands that hunters used to easily access by exchanging chores or favors for hunting access are now harder to access, she said, reinforcing the need for public land to provide southern Michigan hunters with more options.

3) Changing trends in land use and recreation 

As Bridge Michigan has reported, record numbers of visitors have flocked to Michigan’s parks and natural areas during COVID-19 pandemic. That trend highlights the special value of public lands, Whitcomb said.

The COVID-19 outdoor recreation boom has also underscored the myriad ways people want to use those lands, from hunting and fishing to hiking, biking and paddling. The burgeoning popularity of mountain biking, winter fat biking and other activities creates a challenge for state public lands managers, who must respond to new trends in outdoor recreation while working to minimize conflicts between users. 

“It wasn’t that many years ago that nobody knew what a fat bike was,” Whitcomb said. “And now, you’re planning facilities because you’ve got conflicts with fat bikes and cross-country skiers.”

Maintaining access for hunters and anglers, who fund the DNR through license fees and excise taxes on guns and ammunition, also remains a key priority.

Efforts to minimize those conflicts and expand amenities on state lands to cater to new users will likely come up in the plan update, Whitcomb said.

4) Making parks more accessible and welcoming to all

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made racial equity a key theme of her administration.  

National surveys of people who use public lands indicate they skew older, whiter and wealthier. 

That’s at least in part because public recreation lands tend to be concentrated in areas that are not racially diverse, said Alexis Hermiz, diversity, equity and inclusion officer for DNR. 

“Everyone should have access to quality outdoor recreation, no matter where you are in the state,” she said.

A lack of accessibility at public recreation sites can also pose a challenge for disabled visitors. Hermiz said the agency’s new strategy will seek to rectify those barriers. 

An early outline calls for the DNR to work with partners to develop a “signature park” that could also play a role in urban revitalization. It’s not yet clear what that would look like, Whitcomb said, but one possible example is redeveloping a shuttered factory into a public park.

“We want to make sure, as an agency, that we’re looking at everyone's experience, and making everyone feel welcome,” Whitcomb said. “Whether you walk the dog in a nearby state park or or you’re deer hunting on state forest land in the Upper Peninsula.”

5) Enlisting public lands as a tool to fight climate change 

Whitmer last month announced plans for Michigan to be carbon neutral by 2050. Michigan’s new strategy envisions state lands as tools to help reduce Michigan’s carbon footprint.

Earlier this year, DNR announced a pilot project to market carbon credits from trees across 100,000 acres of the Pigeon River Country State Forest. And the agency plans to transform two former mine sites in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula into large solar energy farms.

These efforts, Whitcomb said, are part of a new focus on using public lands to help Michigan meet its climate goals. 

Occhipinti, of the League of Conservation Voters, said his group is pushing for a strategy that not only envisions public lands as possible sites for green energy developments or carbon credit projects, but also “openly recognizes climate change and then identifies objectives and solutions for combating it.”

Part of that, he said, should include a recognition of the economic value of ecosystem services on public lands — the idea that these lands provide economic benefit by filtering water, capturing carbon in trees and cleaning the air, among other things.

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