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State Land Review Draws Praise, Little Criticism

In each county, DNR meets with public about its plans to keep or sell properties

July 14, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which owns 4.5 million acres of land, including parcels along the Betsie River in northwest Lower Michigan, is holding public hearings to help it decide what land to keep, transfer, and sell.

A decade after a northern Michigan state senator questioned the purpose of holding on to the state’s vast domain of publicly owned land, the Department of Natural Resources is conducting a painstaking, county-by-county assessment aimed at consolidating those lands and managing them more efficiently.

The top-to-bottom review of Michigan’s entire 4.5 million acres of open land has already yielded one important initial result: In May 2004, the DNR formally determined the boundaries for all state forests, game and wildlife areas, parks, and recreation areas.

The department is now working on the review’s final stage — deciding what do with land it owns outside of those boundaries. Officials are mapping and evaluating hundreds of individual parcels that collectively comprise tens of thousands of acres in order to recommend each of them for one of three fates: Keeping it in the public domain, transferring it to a conservation agency or local government, or selling it.

The process has drawn praise from leaders of many of the state’s environmental and conservation leaders, who say they like the public manner in which it has been conducted, and the results it has shown so far. Under Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s administration, the department is inviting citizens to contribute to decision-making through county-by-county public hearings. The approach contrasts sharply with the DNR’s land management approach under former Governor John Engler. Critics said that approach was too secretive; the current review’s transparency has helped quell much, but not all, of the criticism such projects can draw.

So far, the DNR has held hearings and made decisions in ten counties, and additional hearings are underway in ten more counties stretching from the Upper Peninsula to southwest Michigan. The agency will evaluate the remaining 63 counties in groups of ten until the work is completed, probably by 2010.

Wide Support — and a Few Raised Eyebrows
Among those expressing concern about selling state land was Toni Larson, the supervisor of Fife Lake Township, southeast of Traverse City, who questioned the DNR’s plan to sell six state-owned platted lots near town. “I’m not in favor of it,” Ms. Larson said. “We like what we have right now, and the townships aren’t benefiting economically from this [sale].”

Glen Sheppard, the editor of North Woods Call, a twice-monthly newspaper aimed at hunters and fishers in Michigan, said that selling large parcels of state land in northern Michigan would accelerate sprawl. “Land on the market will obviously be developed,” said Mr. Sheppard.

But many conservation leaders who evaluated the DNR’s land decisions in their home counties do not share Mr. Sheppard’s concern. John Richter, president of Friends of the Jordan River Watershed, a grassroots group in Antrim County, studied the proposed land sales there. When asked if any of the proposed sales concerned him, he answered flatly, “No.”

Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy, attended the DNR’s public meeting in Leelanau County in March. Mr. Price said he wanted to know if “there was anything that might have value to the local community.” The answer: “There wasn’t much going on,” he said. “There’s an odd former dump, or these little orphaned parcels, and in Leelanau it was mostly that.” 

Steve Arwood, the executive director of the Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy, a Lansing-based research center, said he looked closely at the DNR’s program for disposing of state land and said it was not likely to exacerbate sprawl. “From what we were looking at, it didn’t seem to be an issue,” Mr. Arwood said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.

For its part, the DNR said it is confident that the consolidation program serves the public interest. Steve DeBrabander, of the DNR’s Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Offices, noted that the DNR is plowing the proceeds from its land sales into new land purchases, usually within clearly established state land borders.

“We are getting land for land,” Mr. DeBrabander said. “Any of these parcels that we’re picking up could have been developed, and any type of sprawl-type activity on any of those parcels will be reduced because we’re buying them.”

Cost, Efficiency Motivate Land Assessment
DNR leaders say the big project will help their department manage state lands and resources more efficiently. Overall, the DNR is responsible for protecting 3.9 million acres of state forests, 280,000 acres of state parks and recreation areas at 97 locations, more than 300,000 acres of wildlife preserves, and 45,000 acres of water access sites and other land.

Much of the state’s timber, mining, and energy development occurs on state lands, as does a huge share of fishing, hunting, and sporting activities. According to the DNR, state public lands support 400,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to Michigan's economy each year. The state parks alone attract more than 25 million visitors annually.

Despite the central role that public lands play in Michigan’s economic and cultural well being, some conservative political leaders have said that it costs the state too much money to own and manage that much land.

The criticism from the right came to a head in 1995 when former State Senator George McManus, a Republican of Traverse City, held a public hearing during which he appeared to argue that the state owns too much land. While many citizens who testified at that hearing disagreed with the senator, one report of the proceedings asserted that “the state owns land it should not own.”

The Engler administration used that finding to justify disposing of huge parcels of public land for economic development, including more than three square miles of state land along Interstate 75 in Grayling, with scant public involvement. The decision was criticized for putting a large amount of land prone to sprawling development on the market. 

Transparency and Vigilance
But the Granholm administration, which says it is concerned about the cost and efficiency of public land management, has adopted a more inclusive process. The department’s county-by-county, parcel-by-parcel approach offers county residents a chance to learn about the process and voice their concerns. So far, based on interviews conducted for this article, the public response has been primarily supportive. 

“The tone of the meeting for Emmet County was informational in nature,” said Mary Kay O’Donnell, director of land protection at the Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs. “The DNR answered every question at the public meeting.” 

At another meeting, held on June 21, Jim Gurr, a township trustee for Helena Township in Antrim County, was quick to praise the process. “I want to thank you for being as open as you are,” Mr. Gurr said at the proceeding. “Doing this in the fashion that you are will be much more satisfying to the public, and I appreciate it.”

Still, land protection specialists said they are closely monitoring the DNR’s work. Steve Largent, director of the Boardman River Project at the Grand Traverse Conservation District, said that although he had “no concerns” about the DNR’s proposal to dispose of 22 parcels and almost 281 acres of state-owned land in Antrim and Grand Traverse counties, he was concerned about the agency’s upcoming proposal for Kalkaska County.

“The headwaters of the Boardman River are primarily in that county,” Mr. Largent pointed out.

The Statistics
Earlier this year, after reviewing the first group of ten counties, the DNR concluded that it would retain or transfer 698 parcels representing 9,442 acres, many of them along the coast of Lake Michigan, to a conservation agency, and sell 327 parcels totaling nearly 3,000 acres of state-owned land.

The agency is currently reviewing 646 parcels (5,267 acres) of land in 10 more counties, and so far has proposed selling 165 parcels (1,570 acres) of land in that group.

The department noted that most of these holdings were the result of tax reversions. DNR staff also said that most of the lands that will be sold are poor habitat and that their relative inaccessibility makes them difficult to oversee.

The overriding philosophy, said Kerry Wieber of the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, is “to consolidate our lands within boundaries and to continue to provide public access.”  In many cases, Ms. Wieber said, “We have lots of outliers that don’t have public access.” Parcels that the department determines have no ecological, cultural, or recreational value are the ones offered for exchange or sale, she said. 

For a county-by-county list of land consolidation decisions made to date by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, click here. John Latella, a student at the University of Chicago, is a Jeff Metcalf Fellow writing and reporting on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach him at john@mlui.org.

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