Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Administration Agrees to Largest Sale of Public Land Ever

Administration Agrees to Largest Sale of Public Land Ever

1,850 Acres of state forest near Grayling to be sold for industrial development

April 8, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

K.L. Cool, the Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, is preparing to sign a binding agreement with Grayling Township and regional business executives to release 1,850 acres of public forest land in Crawford County to private interests. The state land is located along a nearly 4 mile stretch on the east side of Interstate 75.

A month ago, I appeared before this Commission to oppose this sale on the basis that it was not in the interest of citizens of this state.

At that time, several Commission members defended the proposal on the basis that the action was proper and part of the department’s normal course of duties.

I am here today to dispute that view and to urge this Commission to give this proposal much more serious consideration, and to invite the public and the legislature to take part. Since the March Commission hearing the Institute has engaged in an intensive research program to understand this sale and its context. As a result of our investigation we have reached the following conclusions:

  1. The proposed sale of 1,850 acres of public lands for industrial development in Grayling is entirely novel and represents a sharp departure in state policy governing the management of public lands.
  2. This is the largest proposed sale of public lands to private developers ever.
  3. The proposed sale is the first time that the DNR has identified, helped to negotiate a land use plan, and proposed to move into private hands a large block of state forest land solely for purposes of economic development.
  4. This is the first time that the Department has formally proposed using state lands as a "growth management" tool. While such a new use of state lands is laudable in our view, the Institute found no guidance, policy, or criteria in law or regulation for overseeing state lands for this purpose. In short "growth management" is a completely new goal governing the DNR’s management of the public domain. It is a goal of remarkable and far-reaching significance that was reached solely through administrative channels without any legislative or public review.
  5. We found no evidence that a Memorandum of Understanding has ever been signed between the Department, a local government, and business executives to release a large block of state land for any purpose.

The Institute understands the rationale behind the proposal to sell a large block of public land near Grayling. In interviews, DNR officials said the proposed agreement is a response to a rural community’s desire to grow.

Local leaders have long complained that because three-quarters of Crawford County is owned by the state or federal governments, industrial and commercial businesses can not expand. Since the mid-1990s, the DNR, Crawford County industrial executives, and local government leaders have been working on a "growth management plan" to concentrate industrial and commercial development near Grayling on state-owned property. The proposed sale of state-land, say proponents, complies with the goals of a 1997 land use master plan approved by the City of Grayling and Grayling Township.

But the issue I am placing before you today is not whether the goals of a select group of community leaders and Department officials are being met, it is instead the singular importance of the proposal itself and its ramifications for public lands management.

The reason is that the DNR is justifying the sale in large part on the usefulness of public lands for "managing growth." This concept, as a formal goal of public lands policy, is entirely new. It should be considered and treated by this Commission and the Department with the respect that it deserves. In introducing the idea that public lands can serve as a "growth management" tool, the Department is proceeding down a new path that is critical to the economy, culture, environment, and quality of life throughout the state in the 21st century, and especially in northern Michigan.

The Michigan Land Use Institute welcomes this discussion about such a new use for public lands. It is just the sort of far-reaching policy innovation that state government and the Department needs to pursue to respond to new conditions, especially how to manage growth around the fast-growing communities in northern Michigan.

Though we oppose the sale of 1,850 acres of public land, in large part because our board, staff, and members are convinced it will accelerate sprawl rather than manage it, the Institute certainly applauds the Department for introducing the concept of deploying public lands for managing growth. It is an idea that has genuine and sweeping implications for the state’s proper role to help tame sprawl.

Yet the magnitude of this proposed policy, the idea that public lands can serve as a growth management tool, demands a more thorough, full-throated, earnest public discussion. Moreover, state law and policy require that such an important new use of state lands is properly the jurisdiction of the legislature, which has historically collaborated with the Department in deciding new policy initiatives of this significance.

Now that the Department and Director Cool have introduced this new use of public lands, it is, in our view, the Commission’s responsibility to see to it that the legislature and the public have ample opportunity to consider the implications. Specifically, the Institute calls on the Commission to invite the Legislature, Department staff, and the public to convene a task force and hold a series of forums designed, at least in part, on answering these pivotal questions:

  1. Is selling state land the best way to manage growth in expanding communities? Or is it better to maintain firm state forest boundaries as a brake on sprawl and runaway development?
  2. If lawmakers, the Department, and the public decide selling large blocks of forest land are useful for economic development, what are the criteria, standards, and policies that govern such sales?
  3. If public lands serve as a growth management tool, what are the criteria for determining whether state forest boundaries near fast growing communities are preserved to contain growth, or broken to provide for development?
  4. Does auctioning large blocks of public land for economic development, as is being proposed in Grayling, serve the public interest and comply with the DNR’s public trust responsibilities?
  5. Economic development has been elevated by the DNR to the top priority for managing a large block of public land in Grayling. Do other social values — conservation, wildlife management, ecological restoration — merit equal or greater priority in overseeing the public domain, particularly if public lands are to be used to manage growth?
  6. Is sequestering nearly three square miles of public forest solely for economic development purposes a proper and legal use of public lands in Michigan?

It is the Institute’s goal to convince Director Cool and the Commission not to sign the Memorandum of Understanding, and to convene a joint Department-Legislative-Citizen task force that focuses principally on these issues:

  • The wisdom and social value of selling large blocks of public lands solely for economic development.
  • The use of public lands as a growth management tool.
  • Establishing formal policies and criteria for using public lands to manage growth.

As you know, the citizens of Michigan have a genuine and deep felt concern about public lands and their meaning to the state’s character and quality of life. Citizens will welcome the sort of careful review that the Institute is suggesting. They also are certain to become much more restive about the Department’s management of public lands, and the significance of this proposed sale, should such a review be denied.

The Department has taken a bold and valuable step toward improving the quality of life in Michigan by formally considering the idea that public lands can serve to manage growth. Citizens deserve a careful analysis by this Department and the Legislature about what precisely that means for the public domain and communities.

The responsibility of this Commission, and the Department it oversees, is to provide sound answers. The Institute is prepared to assist with any facet of this proposed course of action that you deem acceptable and necessary.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org