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Losing Michigan’s Public Forests, One Sale At a Time

Selling public lands

February 8, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

In their cool silence and swallowing space, the publicly-owned forests of northern Michigan are a gift passed from one generation to the next. With nearly 4 million acres of woods under civic ownership, Michigan has the largest public domain of any state east of the Mississippi River. This wild legacy is the foundation of a $3 billion recreation and tourism economy, a $9 billion timber products industry, and a priceless outdoor heritage and culture.

But instead of embracing its responsibility to properly oversee an incomparable domain, the Engler Administration is intent on selling large tracts of public land to private interests.

Last year, without any public comment, the DNR quietly auctioned seven parcels of public forest including three that were larger than 30 acres. The agency is now planning to auction three more parcels, covering 140 acres in the Pere Marquette State Forest in Kalkaska County. Next up could be 45 other parcels spanning nearly 2,100 acres that are on a list of "surplus" public lands to be "disposed." One of those parcels covers 560 acres.

Meanwhile in Roscommon County, the DNR is considering a proposal from business and civic leaders in Grayling to transfer 2,800 more acres of state forest over the next decade to private interests for "economic development." A plan to guide the transfer is expected to be completed before spring.

Senior DNR officials justify the sales on the basis that they make economic sense. Grayling, for example, is surrounded by state land, and the DNR front office is sympathetic to the city’s view that it needs public land to grow.

The DNR also says that the Administration’s goal of a smaller government has diminished the number of land managers. The parcels offered for sale in Kalkaska County are deemed expendable because they are seen as either too small or too far away from the main forest to manage efficiently. The Administration is so wedded to the auctions that Tim Roby, the DNR spokesman, called any criticism of the sales "bogus" and part of an "agenda to create controversy where little exists."

If only it were so. Since the Administration took office, its environmental record has been marred by a reckless eagerness to transfer public resources to private interests. In 1993, the Administration quietly reached a sweetheart agreement with the oil and gas industry to accelerate drilling in public forests by giving companies a $8 million a year subsidy. In 1996, it initially supported a proposal to open the renowned Jordan Valley, a 22,000-acre recreational area, to natural gas drilling. In 1997, it granted Shanty Creek Resort permission to withdraw millions of gallons of water from the Cedar River, a public water body, to make snow and to irrigate a new golf course in Antrim County.

The sale of large parcels of public forest is one more example of the Administration’s fealty to exploitation over sensible stewardship. The auctions are occurring at a time when northern Michigan is experiencing extraordinary population growth. Large parcels of land are at a premium for development. As the region’s premier land owner, the state has fielded numerous proposals, including one to build a race track on public land near Kalkaska and another for a golf course in Crawford County. The increasing size of the public parcels being put up for sale are encouraging haphazard development in some of Michigan’s most beautiful places.

Such disregard for the public domain is a sharp departure from past practices. Since 1921, Michigan has managed public lands to promote wildlife, recreation, protection of natural ecosystems, and to develop minerals, timber, and fisheries. Under its governing statutes, the DNR has the authority to buy and dispose of lands.

Before the mid-1990s, the process generally began with a formal request from a landowner to trade public land for parcels of equal or greater value. DNR officials say some transactions proved cumbersome because of complications from three-way trades, especially for parcels of an acre or less.

In 1989, at the DNR’s request, the Legislature provided some flexibility. It established the Land Exchange Facilitation Fund. The pace of the sales is governed by a $500,000 cap on the amount the fund can hold at any time. Proceeds are used to buy state land, and deals can only take place if the fund contains less than $500,000. By virtue of its design, the Facilitation Fund principally enabled the DNR to quicken sales of small parcels.

The Engler Administration, however, is using the Facilitation Fund to sell much larger parcels and to gain political points. Although it’s difficult to fathom, some citizens and government leaders believe that the state owns too much land and that local economies are being hemmed in. This view gained official credence in a report on public land ownership published in 1996 by a state senate task force that was led by Sen. George McManus, a Traverse City Republican, who once described the practice of acquiring public lands as "a little like creeping socialism."

Gov. Engler pledged in the State of the State last month to "make sure that Michigan’s rich legacy of natural beauty and well-managed resources is preserved for future generations." If the governor is serious, he should immediately halt the auction of large parcels of public forest. He also should direct the DNR to hold hearings that give citizens a chance to decide whether any more of their domain ought to be sold.

A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on February 8, 1999.

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