Michigan public lands dispute erupts again

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing – — A simmering disagreement over Michigan public land use policies broke open again Wednesday when Sen. Tom Casperson in a floor speech took issue with a column written by the leader of the state’s best-known conservation organization.

The strongly worded piece by Michigan United Conservation Clubs Executive Director Dan Eichinger charges lawmakers with “intellectual fraud” for trying to curtail public land ownership because they see it as a hindrance to development and the added tax revenue it would produce for local governments.

The column doesn’t specifically mention Casperson or any other lawmaker, but the Escanaba Republican is working on land-use bills that deal with the issue. He said he has been holding meetings with interested parties such as the Nature Conservancy and Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

“The reference in here is, in what we’re working on, that we’re selling a bill of goods to the public and it’s fraudulent,” Casperson said about the column in the May/June issue of the organization’s Michigan Out of Doors magazine. “It’s literally a hit piece.”

In his column, Eichinger took a shot at lawmakers who, he said, want government to act like any other business yet not “negotiate the most favorable terms, maximizing potential return” on land sales.

Ongoing debate centers on efforts by lawmakers, mostly in the Republican majority, to slow down purchases of land for public use. A constitutional amendment dictates that revenues from oil and gas leases on state lands be used annually to buy additional public land and/or improve parks.

Casperson was a leader in passing a 2012 law limiting how much land the state can own to 4.6 million acres until the Department of Natural Resources developed a comprehensive strategy to guide how the state acquires, manages and sells public lands. That’s about 20,000 acres above what the state owns.

While environmental and conservation groups charged lawmakers were holding hostage public lands to revise how those lands are used or force sell-offs, the DNR produced a proposed set of guidelines required by the 2012 law.

Casperson said he’s now working on legislation, requested by the governor’s office, to balance the powers of lawmakers and the DNR director over the way public land is used in the future. He said he’s holding almost daily meetings, won’t move his bills soon and is seeking a compromise all can support.

“We’ve been very open with people and telling them we don’t have all the answers,” Casperson said. “It affects many people’s very way of life.”

But the Upper Peninsula lawmaker has been a critic of what he sees as expansive policies that result in state, federal and environmental group ownership of vast tracts, especially in the Upper Peninsula, that becomes off-limits to some types of usage and limits commercial development that could produce more jobs.

While he agrees with a goal of making “the great out-of-doors” available to everyone, Casperson said in his floor speech, “many times in the past, we find berms, gates, some type of restriction ... (and) very difficult to get trails put in for types of use that some people don’t care for.”

Eichinger said MUCC is concerned about efforts by lawmakers to curtail public land ownership and management, especially when outdoor sportsmen went along with hunting and fishing license fee increases to help fund it.

He said local governments’ money problems began with revenue-sharing reductions going back more than a decade. It’s dishonest to “demonize” public land ownership for a problem those cuts helped create, he argues.

“We’re paying our money to support public land and we feel like they’ve taken us for a ride,” he said. Some lawmakers want to make it easier for the state “to off-load land that was purchased for hunters and anglers to use,” Eichinger added.

“It is shameful to think that hunting, fishing and trapping would become the province of the rich, available only to those with the means to acquire private land,” his column says. “We cannot simultaneously support the expansion of our outdoor heritage through investment in recruitment and retention efforts and hold a fire sale on the very land upon which we depend to practice it.”

For his part, Casperson criticized the Department of Natural Resources over recent efforts by U.P. businesses to buy two smaller parcels of state land — one of 80 acres, the other involving 160 acres. He said state policies and practices make such purchases difficult, even when the state is selling off land it doesn’t need or want.

In the one instance, Casperson said, Oswald Bear Ranch — a Newberry-area tourist draw — wanted to expand by purchasing 160 acres of adjoining public land. He said the business instead was forced into a land exchange that took a couple of years to complete.

The ranch, which owner Dean Oswald claims to be the largest of its kind in the nation, has 29 roaming black bears. The deal was completed in March 2014.