Two letters sent to Keith Creagh, DNR director, explain how two bills making their way through the Michigan Legislature can have dire consequences for the health of the Pigeon River Country. John Walters, chair of the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council, sent the letters Nov. 1, 2016. He urges concerned citizens to contact Director Creagh to ask that the DNR take action to prevent these bills from going forward as currently written.

Emails can be sent to [email protected]

Letters can be addressed to:

Director Keith Creagh
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
P. O. Box 30028
Lansing, MI 48909

The text of Walters’ letter re: Impacts of Senate Bill’s 39 & 40 on the Pigeon River Country State Forest is as follows:

At the quarterly meeting of the Pigeon River County Advisory Council on October 20, 2016, I requested that the Standards and Limitations Committee consider the impact of Senate Bills 39 and 40 on the Pigeon River County State Forest and its Concept of Management. The Committee has done so and offers the following recommendations, which are supported by the Pigeon River Country Advisory Council.

In a number of respects, SB 39 and 40 run counter to management principles of the Department that have been developed for unique areas of state forest land of special value, covered by comprehensive management plans. In the case of the Pigeon River County (“PRC”), that management plan is set out in the Concept of Management that has been in place for more than four decades. The Concept has been developed and implemented through a careful process involving broad public involvement and the active participation of citizens from a balance of local and statewide organizations, including government.

Because of the conflict between the Senate Bills and the Concept, the Committee recommends that the Department either oppose this legislation or seek amendments that will exempt special management areas, such as the PRC, from its application. The comprehensive management plan for the PRC, set out in the Concept, is especially tailored to the unique values, needs and attributes of the “Big Wild”. This legislation undermines various policies and objectives of the Concept. It would also usurp the Department’s proper role in managing the PRC in line with the goals and objectives of the Concept. It would handcuff the Department with broad mandates not tailored to specific natural resource values, replacing agency expertise based upon science based management with legislative fiat.

Short of an overarching modification of the legislation to exempt the PRC and other special management areas from its reach, the legislation at a minimum should be amended to eliminate conflicts with the goals and objectives of the Concept, and preserve the Department’s discretion to manage our natural resources in the best interest of the people of Michigan.

Examples of such conflicts include the following:

        1.         Land Acquisition SB 39 in-effect grants veto power to local units of government over acquisitions of public land to enhance the PRC for the benefit of all Michigan citizens.  PA 316 of 1980, concerning oil and gas development in the PRC, states that royalties from hydrocarbon development are to be used to enable the state to acquire property for the enjoyment of outdoor recreationists.  Over many years since 1973 those royalties have been used for this purpose, resulting in important additions to the size, character and public resources of the PRC, home to the nucleus of Michigan’s nationally renowned elk herd. 

        The Concept provides that the “DNR will continue to actively pursue acquisitions of available private parcels [within the PRC] . . .”,  and that “lands surrounding the PRC are very important to maintaining wildlife habitat and the unique character of the Pigeon River County.”  (Concept, p. 35).  These lands “should receive as much protection as possible from any use that is inconsistent with the goals of the PRC.” (Concept, p. 35).  Appendix 1 of the Concept states in Goal 2, Objective C, that the Department is to “maintain a list of private properties adjacent to the PRC that, if acquired or protected, would greatly complement some management aspect of the PRC such as elk or other wildlife corridors.”  These are prudent policies that have been successfully utilized to enhance, protect and improve the special values of the PRC.

        In their present form, however, the Senate Bills would empower local units of government to veto land acquisitions supported by the Department, consistent with these policies, and sought by willing sellers.  Whether such sellers are motivated by financial considerations or the desire to enable their property to be protected and enjoyed as public resources for the benefit of future generations, it is offensive to both sound public policy and private property rights to cloak a local government unit with unfettered power to quash such a transaction.  Given that local property tax revenue to the local units are fully protected by PILF, what reasonable government objective would be served by allowing a local unit to veto a land transaction between a willing seller of private property and the state?  Should this authority be delegated by the state legislature past the Department charged with managing our natural resources and down to local units who do not represent the broad public interest?  What respect does this show for the private rights of property owners enshrined in our Constitution and laws?  Would a disappointed seller have a “takings” claim against the local unit responsible for upsetting a sale”

        These provisions are ill-advised and should be stricken from the proposed legislation.

        2.         Management of Non-Game Species. The concept points out that “[d]uring the past three decades, forest, wildlife and fisheries management practices have evolved with advances in scientific knowledge” (Concept, p.1).  It states that the PRC is “the heartland of Michigan’s elk herd and other wildlife, fish and plant species” and that “[i]t will be the policy of the Department of Natural Resources to manage the Pigeon River County to protect and maintain the natural beauty of its forests and waters, and to sustain a healthy elk herd, fish and wildlife populations . . ..   Within these policies and objectives, the DNR shall: . . . 2. Provide needed habitat and seclusion for diverse fish and wildlife species” (Concept, p.14).   “The DNR must plan to protect biodiversity.”  (Concept, p.16).

        “Cover management on [most areas] of the PRC will be conducted in a manner which applies the best knowledge and techniques to enhance wildlife habitat quality and conserve natural communities.  Adaptive Management will be applied and the Pigeon River County will be open to research and experimentation” (Concept, p.20).

        These principles appropriately reflect the value of game species, while recognizing the importance of biodiversity, the interdependence of species, and the primacy of scientific management.  SB 39’s blanket restrictions on the use of funds for management of non-game species run counter to these principles.  Game species do not live in ecological silos disconnected from their environments; non-game species have great value in their own right and are important to a great many recreationists using the PRC.  Holistic management for the benefit of all species upholds the Concept’s overarching Objective of maintaining and protecting the Big Wild.  Additionally, SB 39’s restrictions may put at risk Michigan’s forest certification goals and U.S. Fish and Wildlife requirements for federal and Pittman Robertson funding.  The restrictive funding language in the Senate bills represents a retrograde perspective that has no place in modern, enlightened resource management.

        3.         Vehicle Access. Access Management is critical to the objective of maintaining the wild character of the Pigeon River County.  Reduced road density provides for more area minimally affected by motorized vehicles.  Disturbance levels are reduced for all recreationists and wildlife.  Where cover management activities open or reopen new routes in the PRC, restoration of prior area conditions must be made part of the treatment plan and follow up” (Concept p.19).

        The vehicular system is managed in the PRC to fulfill the Objectives of the Concept.  It sets out a carefully framed protocol to balance the need for access against the risk of overdevelopment of the Big Wild, which could destroy its character.  It provides for an ample and established network of public roads, as well as management roads needed to allow temporary access to areas of the forest for management or timber harvest.  ‘[Management] roads in this category will be closed to vehicular traffic by the use of gates or other means.”  . . . In most cases, haul roads will be closed with the timber sale. . .” (Concept, p.28).

        SB 39’s provisions allowing virtually anyone to challenge this vehicular access plan and petition for the removal of berms over closed roads would needlessly invite an era of conflict and divisiveness of the type that the Concept was framed to avoid, diverting the Department’s resources away from positive management of the PRC.  The wisdom of the Concept is that it entrusts the Department to manage the PRC to protect its unique wild character from overuse and overdevelopment, with the support of a broadly diverse Advising Council.  SB 39’s provisions undermine this sensible regulatory construct, and would embolden any disgruntled user to chip away at the regulatory foundations protecting the Big Wild.

        4.         Forest Management.  The Concept states that “Manipulation of cover, whether by active intervention or absence of intervention, is the most important factor which influences wildlife populations, aesthetic values and recreation.  Trees will be commercially harvested as the most efficient and economical means of management.  Although not the primary objective, economic benefits will be derived from these treatments.” (Concept, p. 16)  The provisions of SB 39 and 40 regarding timber management and the primacy given to economic benefits is inconsistent with principles of science based management, and protection of the “Big Wild”, set out in the Concept.  Surely there are special areas of the State, such as the PRC, where economic return is recognized and respected, but where other resource values can take precedence for the good of the whole.  Indeed, the wellspring of the Concept, in the historic resolution of the oil and gas controversy, reflects just such a balance between providing for reasonable economic return, yet protecting the special values of the PRC for all citizens and future generations to enjoy.  We urge the Department to oppose the forest management provisions of SB 39 that would upset this balance.

The text of the letter re: Governor’s promise on the Michigan land cap is as follows:

In 2012, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed into law Public Land Cap legislation which was then known as Senate Bill 248. A July 2, 2012 press release stated that Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed legislation to develop a detailed, strategic plan for land acquisition and disposal, establishing a cap on certain public lands until that plan is adopted…Senate Bill 248, sponsored by State Senator Tom Casperson, caps the amount of land that can be owned by the state at 4.6 million acres until the strategic plan is approved by the Legislature.

The press release continued to say that “Public lands are an important part of Michigan’s reinvention, both for recreation and resource-based industries,” Snyder said. “Having a comprehensive management policy for what land the state owns, and why, will help guide the quantity, location and use of our public lands in the future to better serve citizens.” Snyder said he will ask the DNR to work with the Legislature and stakeholders to craft and swiftly adopt the strategic plan.

In accordance with this legislative requirement, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources immediately initiated a public engagement process together with a comprehensive internal examination of Department policies pertaining to the acquisition, sale and exchange of State-managed lands. Out of this process, the Public Land Management Strategy was completed in July of 2013 – well within the two year mandate specified by Senate Bill 248 and the Governor’s directive. It is worth noting that among its provisions was the commitment to work closely with local units of government to be sure that State of Michigan-managed lands are making a positive contribution to their respective areas and in accordance with the strategic plan. To illustrate that this strategy was not all about further acquisition, it also identified approximately 200,000 acres what could be classified as “excess lands” and may be suitable for disposal.

Fast forward to now, late 2016. The completed land strategy has never been formally considered for adoption by the legislature. Instead, the Michigan Legislature are now on the threshold of the passage of a package of Bills (SB-39/40) which will effectively memorialize the most draconian provisions of the original legislation.

At an October 26, 2016 meeting of the Montmorency County Board of Commissioners, we witnessed one of the major issues associated with this proposed legislation. The meeting was attended by a group supporting the possible State acquisition of a 600 acre parcel adjacent to the Pigeon River Country State Forest. Among those exceptional features included with this land is its 44-acre, twin-sinkhole lake, over a mile of river and streams and the remnants of an historic camp which was known to have been visited by Ernest Hemingway.

Although the group was seeking only a letter of support for a federal grant application, on a 3-2 vote the Commissioners again voted not to send a letter of support and voiced their opposition to this potential public land acquisition. The vote took place after they received a comprehensive presentation about how the future payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) by the State of Michigan would actually be more than they are currently receiving in the way of property taxes on the property. The significance of this vote is that a process similar to this would be required in many Counties if SB-39/40 were to become law. In their “defense,” these County Commissioners did cite the rare instances in some eighty years when the State Legislature did not fully fund the (PILT) program or do so in a timely fashion. Given the fact that, however, that the vast majority of Michigan’s public land was forfeited through the non-payment of taxes, the State’s PILT payment system may actually be a more reliable revenue stream for local units of government.

Since there is likely to be even less support for this possible acquisition at the Township level, the alternative to the County support mandated by SB-39/40 would do nothing to prevent say, three individuals at the County level, or a similar number at a Township, from standing in the way of a land acquisition which would likely benefit all of the citizens of this State. We’ll leave it to others to decide the constitutionality of a local unit of government preventing a willing buyer and willing seller entering into an agreement for the sale of real estate.

When the original Land Cap bill was signed, most of us believed the Governor when he said that this was a tool to be used in the development of a long term strategy. It now seems that many are ready to ignore this 2012 commitment and turn our public land acquisition and disposal strategies over to a handful of individuals who may not be committed to a public engagement process. A group who, instead, seem to be willing to blindly accept a narrative which suggests that public land is a bad thing which stands in the way of the economic health of our rural communities – this, in spite of all evidence being to the contrary.

Senate Bills 39 and 40 needs to be amended, or defeated, in an effort to provide for an alternative process which allows for local engagement while not surrendering such decisions to a handful of individuals who were not elected to represent all of the citizens of this state. The 2013 Michigan Public Land Management Strategy represents that alternative and is consistent with the promises made by the Governor in 2012.

Both letters are signed by John Walters.

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