By Jack Nissen
Capital News Service
Michigan counties with lots of public land are looking to take some control over state land purchases.
A pending bill would grant local governments more power when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) buys land, while also making sure the state pays its tax bill on time.
The proposed change is in response to the local governments that are upset the state has too much control over northern Michigan land, said Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, a cosponsor of the bill.
“I always hear the reason the state wants to own the land is so you and I can enjoy the land,” he said. “Yet in my area, far too often, land was gated up or fenced off and access was cut off.”
Critics say the bill restricts statewide land management decisions.
Casperson worries it’s too difficult for people to buy land from the state. The Michigan Association of Counties, which supports the bill, wants counties to be able to veto state purchases. And groups like the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance take issue with how the DNR allocates land.
“If conservation is the wise use of resources that benefits the most people for the longest time, then that’s not what is happening,” said Dale McNamee, the former president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance. “Parts of the bill guarantee sportsmen they will have land where to hunt.”
McNamee says the DNR often doesn’t take advantage of public land by prohibiting mining, fishing and hunting. The alliance promotes recreational experiences and encourages conservation of natural resources in the area, he said.
Under the bill, counties with more than 40 percent of their land owned by the state would have approval power over any additional state land purchase in their county. As of 2016, six counties fit that description: Cheboygan, Crawford, Dickinson, Kalkaska, Luce and Roscommon. Of the almost 4.6 million acres the DNR owns, 85 percent is north of the Mason-Arenac line, an invisible line that stretches across counties north of the Thumb.
The Michigan Environmental Council opposes several parts of the bill.
“Our issue with that is these are statewide land management decisions that are supported by a lot of people,” said Sean Hammond, the council’s deputy policy director. “This would allow a single county to hold up a statewide land management decision. We think that’s not the appropriate way to make these decisions.”
The council disagrees with restricting the DNR’s purchasing power if the state isn’t current on payments it makes in lieu of taxes. When the state buys land, not only is the county getting money for the initial purchase, but to offset the property taxes it isn’t receiving, the state pays what are called Payments In Lieu of Taxes or PILT.
If the state fell behind on these payments, the bill would allow a cap on how much land the DNR could purchase would go into effect. The council disagrees with this because, while the DNR purchases land, the payments are appropriated by the Legislature, not the department itself.
“We’re questioning why we need to tie those together when they are completely separate entities,” Hammond said.
While payments have been late in the past, the DNR says the state doesn’t usually miss PILT payments.
Both the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan United Conservation Clubs oppose the bill.
Sponsors hope to improve local business opportunities impeded by public land ownership, Casperson said. In 2014, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, a big money-maker for Luce County, was looking to purchase land held by the DNR.
Instead, the business had to buy 160 acres the state wanted, then swap it for the land it preferred, which took years, Casperson said. More than half the county is owned by the state.
“When we can’t even help little businesses like this and there is so much economic turmoil in the region, it’s really unfortunate,” Casperson said. “There may be benefits to the state owning public land, but not through the local economy.”
That’s where the environmental council sees it differently.
The philosophy behind these bills is the state has too much public land and that doesn’t help the economy, Hammond said.
“Well, we see it the other way. We see tourism and recreation growing at huge rates. Trail running, mountain biking, birding, these are all industries that are growing, and where’s the best place to do them? On the state’s public land.”
The DNR says the legislation wouldn’t have much effect on the way it does business, because it already uses many of the practices the bill mandates.
“We recognize there was justifiable concern that the DNR was making decisions about local land ownership without fully considering the interests or needs of local government officials,” said Ed Golder, the DNR’s public information officer. “So we’ve changed that engagement model.”
When a new land strategy was developed in 2013, DNR director Keith Creagh met with many northern county officials to gauge how they felt about how the government uses public land.
Since then, it’s become standard practice to seek approval from local governments and to seek agreement on the footprint of state-managed public land, Golder said.
It’s a practice that officials with the Michigan Association of Counties say they appreciate.
“We support the bill and we support the DNR working with counties,” said Deena Bosworth, the director of governmental affairs at the association. “This bill codifies the relationship they have been working on for years now.”
The bill passed the Senate in mid-October and has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.