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To Hold in Trust, or Put Up for Sale?

Public lands on auction block

August 1, 1998 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan owns more land than any state east of the Mississippi River. This vast 4.5 million-acre holding,
encompassing state forests, parks, and game and recreation areas, is managed by the Department of Natural

Since 1921, the state has managed public lands for multiple economic and conservation purposes. These
include promoting wildlife, recreation, protection of natural ecosystems, and development of minerals, timber,
and fisheries. Parks are intensively managed for recreation and preserving natural features, while forests are
also logged, leased for oil and gas, mined for gravel, and rented for pasture.

Three-quarters of the state's public land was acquired during the Depression, when landowners could not pay their
property taxes. The state maintains a system for adding especially valuable forests and wild lands to the public
domain, and for trading or selling parcels deemed too far-flung and expensive to manage well.

While the DNR acquired an average of nearly 8,300 acres of land a year over the last eight years, through
sales and trades its holdings have shrunk by 9%, or 450,000 acres, since 1942.

The management of state lands has become increasingly political as the Engler Administration and the Legislature
have intervened to make or influence decisions that historically had been overseen by agency professionals. Among
the most important changes in the last decade is in the program to trade or sell state lands.

In the past, the process began with formal requests from developers or other landowners to trade public
land for parcels of equal or greater value. That often resulted in complicated three-way deals that were either
so costly or slow-moving that they fell through, according to the DNR.

In 1989 the Legislature established the Land Exchange Facilitation Fund, a revolving account for
conducting land sales and trades. Land is appraised, and sold at or above fair market value. There is a
$500,000 cap on the amount the fund can hold -- exceeding that amount triggers a temporary moratorium on
further sales. The fund makes it possible for the DNR to sell land without receiving other property in return,
and to use the proceeds to buy land for parks and state forests.

And, as the next three articles describe, Lansing now is opening up more ways for private interests to tap
into state lands.

Diane Conners is a former environmental reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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