Land Wars: Senator targets private land conservancies

A state senator who introduced Michigan’s controversial land cap law now wants nonprofit land conservancies to pay property taxes -- unless they provide unlimited public access and allow motorized vehicles in privately owned nature preserves.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he has drafted legislation that could ensure public access to tens of thousands of acres of private natural areas owned by groups like The Nature Conservancy.

"This will provide more recreation opportunities and ensure residents get some benefit from their communities receiving fewer tax dollars due to the tax exemption in current law," Casperson said.

Critics contend Casperson’s property tax proposal is unprecedented and would force land conservancies, which usually are nonprofit groups, into a no-win situation: Provide unrestricted access to nature preserves and allow activities that could devastate fragile ecosystems, or pay hefty property taxes to maintain control over those areas.

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"This proposal really sets up a contradiction," said Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy. "To qualify for the property tax exemption, you have to operate natural areas and protect significant natural habitat -- this legislation would take away our ability to protect and manage those areas."

There are 30 active land conservancies in Michigan. Collectively, those conservancies own about 84,000 acres of land -- less than one-quarter of 1 percent of all the land in Michigan, according to the Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy in Lansing.

Private land conservancies own some of the most spectacular natural areas in Michigan, including Brockway Mountain in the Upper Peninsula and portions of the Pigeon River Country State Forest near Gaylord. Those sites are open to the public, but recreational activities are restricted.

Conservationists said land conservancies acquire land for a variety of purposes: to establish nature preserves that protect delicate and rare natural features; to provide public access to lakes, rivers and ecologically unique areas; and to ensure public access to snowmobile trails and other recreational resources.

Officials at several land conservancies said they allow unlimited public access at most of their sites, but prohibit motorized vehicles and restrict other activities in natural areas to protect fragile resources like sand dunes, wetlands, trout streams and endangered plants.

"Our properties are open to the public, but not to motor vehicles because we are offering the chance to experience a quiet natural area," said Tom Bailey, executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy.

"It would certainly change the experience on hiking trails if you have motorized vehicles running around," Bailey said. "It would be noisy, you wouldn’t see as much wildlife and you would have erosion damage in areas."

Glen Chown of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy says he is not aware of any state that currently levies property taxes on nonprofit land conservancies that limit public access or use of privately owned nature preserves.

The Michigan Constitution and the state’s General Property Tax Act afford property tax exemptions to conservation groups, religious organizations, schools and certain other nonprofits.

Casperson’s draft legislation apparently wouldn’t conflict with the state Constitution. Instead, it would add amend the Property Tax Act.

The legislation, a copy of which was obtained by Bridge, is Casperson’s latest controversial initiative involving environmental policy.

The Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder recently passed a law that limits the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ ownership of state land to 4.626 million acres, until the agency develops a land acquisition strategy. Casperson authored that bill, which also requires the DNR to receive legislative approval before buying any more land north of Clare.

The vast majority of land held by conservancies in Michigan is found north of Clare, as well.

Casperson said the land cap was needed to limit public land ownership in Northern Michigan and rein in an agency that continues to buy land despite lacking sufficient funds to properly maintain the land it already owns.

Rich Bowman, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy’s Michigan chapter, said he believes Casperson’s property tax proposal is a response to changing land ownership in the Upper Peninsula.

Large tracts of U.P. forestland owned by paper mills, which often allowed unrestricted access and activities, have been sold recently to real estate investment trusts that want their property certified as environmentally sustainable, commercial forests. Achieving that type of certification often requires limiting public access and banning motorized vehicles, Bowman said.

Bowman said Casperson’s proposal would make it more difficult for land conservancies to acquire and protect land with valuable natural features.

"I don’t think Sen. Casperson has any malicious intent, I’m just not sure he understands the ramifications of his proposal," Bowman said.

Bailey said Casperson’s tax plan unfairly singles out land conservancies -- it wouldn’t apply to church groups or other civic organizations that own nature preserves. He also challenged Casperson’s claim that tax-exempt nature preserves are a financial drain on local units of government.

"Realtors tell us time and time again that there is an enhancement to neighboring land values when a natural area is preserved," Bailey said. "We need areas where motorized vehicles are allowed, and we have a lot of them, but we also need quiet natural areas and those are getting harder and harder to find."

Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.

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Thu, 08/23/2012 - 8:51am
So is he proposing that "no-profits" must allow unlimited public access? Could I then run my ATV on any non-profits' property? He says "This will provide more recreation opportunities and ensure residents get some benefit from their communities receiving fewer tax dollars due to the tax exemption in current law" This certainly seems like what he is proposing.
David Waymire
Thu, 08/23/2012 - 9:10am
If Rep. Casperson is worried about local government revenues, he should stop voting for tax cuts like the most recent $100 million income tax cut that makes it impossible for the state to live up to its responsibilities to make payments in lieu of taxes to those governments.
Thu, 08/23/2012 - 10:04am
Apparently Casperson doesn't get the meaning of "protection" or understand the principles and implications of biodiversity. And Mr. Waymire (below) has a telling point about the tax cut.
Chris Page
Thu, 08/23/2012 - 10:34am
no problem. Since some folks consider environmentalism a religion Conservancies can say "you're right, it IS a religion and we're a church" and hence be excluded
Thu, 08/23/2012 - 12:02pm
Casperson is a one issue politician. He is on a mission to force the State of MI to divest itself of as much public land as he can, so corporate developers can convert it to private uses, with few if any restrictions. This proposed legislation will force non-profits to do the same with conservancy land. To Casperson, the only good land is land that makes money for corporate interests. This makes a mockery of his oath of office. He is not doing the best for the citizens of the state, only for his corporate bosses. I guarantee that if this Bill is passed, it will be passed before the Nov. elections and it will be placed into immediate "emergency" effect to assure that it is not overturned when the Repugs lose their majority in the House.
Fri, 08/24/2012 - 9:16am
Casperson is not the first legislator , and won't be the last, to attempt to make money where value is inherent without it.
Sat, 08/25/2012 - 2:33pm
What is being proposed is an atrocity. The purpose of conservancy land is to conserve biodiversity. Only gentle use of the land, on restricted trails, i.e. without mechanized vehicles, is what is necessary in order to preserve the delicate balance in nature. Unless we want our grandchildren to grow up without the joy of experiencing nature in its abundant diversity, we must strictly adhere to the restrictions now in place for protected lands. Can you imagine what life would be like living in continuous suburbia with no escape to nature?
Mrs. A
Sun, 08/26/2012 - 1:33am
Cui bono? Whose interest does Mr Casperson serve, if not in his present capacity as legislator, then in his aspirations and associations? Please, Bridge reporters, would you dig as deep as you can?
D. Michael
Mon, 08/27/2012 - 9:03am
If this law does pass and is put into immediate effect, A Non-Profit needs to be set up to assist these Land Owners to pay the required taxes to maintain the current status. All Non-Profits that have land for conservation purposes, and subject to the new tax, would be allowed to apply for grants for the taxes due. The new Non Profit will need to reach out and market to the general public, targeting specifically the outdoor enthusiests through target market stores, sportsmans clubs, and scouts.I have no doubt that the necessary funds will be raised via soliticing donations. I know that the general start up would be cumbersome, but people that enjoy nature will support nature.
Wed, 08/29/2012 - 10:50am
Currently CFR (Commercial Forest Reserve) designation allows a major tax deduction for timber owners while only requiring them to allow public access for hunting and fishing. Compare the huge amount of tax dollars that are not collected due to CFR designation to the paltry amount not paid by conservancies. Why isn't Casperson pushing a bill to allow unlimited public access to CFR lands? I'm not saying that I would favor unlimited public access to CFR lands. All CFR landowners should have the right to put some reasonable restrictions on how their lands are used by the public. In an ideal world, I would modify the Commercial Forest Act to allow unlimited non-motorized public use of CFR lands, while allowing motorized use on CFR lands on either an "open unless designated as closed" basis or a "closed unless designated as open" basis. This would allow an owner of forest lands to, potentially, allow ATV use on logging roads but not elsewhere. The problem, though, is that some ATV users already feel they can take their ATVs any darn place they want to on CFR lands, whether they are hunting, fishing, or just joyriding.
Wed, 08/29/2012 - 1:03pm
Casperson has no understanding of the mission of conservancies. He has, during his term, tried his utmost and succeeded in getting through legislation signed by Snyder, that is all about letting corporations and big business fleece townships and destroy the "Commons". He needs to be voted out!
Mon, 11/05/2012 - 10:00am
Thought that all private conservation of lands had as it's justification, public enjoyment of the lands for conservation and preservation purposes, and enjoyment. That any would be nontaxable but private destroys the purpose of land conservancy and reduces it to land hoarding. What is the basis and purpose of tax exemption otherwise?
D Dailey
Fri, 07/25/2014 - 11:56am
The agenda Casperson is hiding is that GOP at federal levels want to turn National forest over to state jurisdiction. The land cap paved the way for up ward of 2.7 million acres of national land must be sold if Michigan Where to acquirer the national forest within 6 months . Follow the money UP voters wake up Casperson and Snyder have corporate interests they advocate for NOT the people