Environment Picture

Report: Tradition of public access to UP forests threatened by ownership changes

‘Place without fences’ already seeing more restrictions on free-roaming hikers, hunters, snowmobilers as commercial forests change hands
The Upper Peninsula’s unique identity could be changing as commercial forest ownership changes threaten traditions of public access and wide-open spaces, according to a report released in December by the Michigan Environmental Council in concert with conservation groups and university researchers.

The region’s constants—wide open spaces accessible to the public, sustainably managed forests and an economic foundation of forest industries and tourism—need better incentives to remain in place for future generations, the report concludes.

For more than a century, timber companies and forest products firms have been key owners of large-scale tracts of UP land. They actively managed their lands and enrolled them in a program that gives them tax incentives for allowing public access to their forests and waters.

Coming decades could see changes in that pattern as real estate trusts and timber investment management organizations continue to acquire land. Those owners’ goals often are substantially different—focusing on investment returns rather than supplying timber to mills.

All told, more than one million acres of land changed hands in the UP during 2005 and 2006 alone—more than ten times the amount of land in the City of Detroit.

In states where this large-scale shift has already occurred, people have seen restrictions on public access; physical fragmentation of the landscape by roads, buildings and other infrastructure; reductions in wildlife habitat; and a loss of public access to high-value natural features like lakeshores and streams.

“Our research shows that the sprawling forest tracts that have long been part of the UP’s allure are already getting smaller and more fragmented,” said Robert Froese of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University. “Lands along Great Lakes shoreline and along streams and rivers are increasingly owned by small private interests and, therefore, less accessible to the public.”

Additionally, the forest products industry and tourism economy that is the backbone of the UP economy may change without better education and forward-looking public policy adaptations, the report concludes.

“More than half of employee compensation in the UP’s manufacturing sector comes directly from forest products industries, so any substantial change in that industry will have massive implications for employment patterns,” said Larry Leefers of the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University. “This analysis shows that both forest industry and tourism are critical to the UP, and that policies need to support those industries. Otherwise, the UP and Michigan will suffer a loss.”

The report offers 22 recommendations, grouped under four strategies, to maintain sustainable ownership and management of the UP’s forests, while encouraging economic, recreational and conservation opportunities.
The recommendations range from policy initiatives and education at the local and state levels to economic stimuli for forest products and industries.

“No one recommendation is a cure-all,” said Brad Garmon, land programs director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “But this report is a starting point for discussing steps that might help protect what is most cherished about the Upper Peninsula, while encouraging economic development, protecting natural areas and maintaining public access.”

The report, Large-tract Forestland Ownership Change: Land Use, Conservation and Prosperity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a cooperative venture of Michigan Technological University, Michigan State University, the Michigan Environmental Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development Council. The project was funded by People and Land, a program of the Kellogg Foundation administered by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.

The report is available at www.environmentalcouncil.org. More information is available on the project website at http://www.forestlands.mtu.edu.
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