The state of Michigan owns 4.6 million acres, a treasure trove of forests, parks and open spaces that supports the economy and provides a bountiful outdoor playground. In a special message on energy and the environment this past week, the Republican governor said there's much to appreciate about the extensive public holdings. But they've been acquired in piecemeal fashion with too little consideration about what to do with them, he said.
"We've protected a beautiful place here, or a particular river or lake there, but we've never stepped back and tried to think holistically about what we do own, what we should own, where — and most of all, why," he said.
Michigan needs what the land provides — tourism and logging jobs, minerals that heat homes and build cars, quiet places to spend vacations and habitat for wildlife, Snyder said. What's lacking, he said, is a coherent plan for achieving goals such as environmental protection and economic development that sometimes appear to conflict.
The Department of Natural Resources hopes to develop a public lands management strategy by this spring, Director Keith Creagh said. Groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Michigan Forest Products Council, which represents pulp mills and industrial land owners, will be watching closely. Few would disagree with the need for a smarter approach, but opinions differ on what that means.
One flash point might be Snyder's proposal to "rebalance our land portfolio" by purchasing some properties and selling off others. Most of the state's forest acres were once failed farm plots that government seized when private owners failed to pay taxes. Because they weren't purchased to achieve environmental or economic goals, it may not make sense to keep all of them, he said.
Meanwhile, Michigan's extensive networks of public trails could be even better if the state could acquire land to fill gaps and link different pathways, Snyder said. If about 200 miles were added to the system in the right places, hikers and bikers could follow a continuous course from Detroit's Belle Isle to the western Upper Peninsula and the Wisconsin state line.
Such an approach is nothing new for nonprofit groups that buy or sell land for particular purposes, said Rich Bowman, government relations director for the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy, on whose board Snyder previously served.
"But there are some folks who believe the state can never own too much and should just buy everything it can," he said. "On the other side, there are people with an ideological objection to government ownership of land who will resist any proposals to acquire more."
Legislation enacted this year would appear to rule out large-scale purchases for now. Sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican, the measure limited the amount of land the state can own to 4,626,000 acres until the Legislature approves a management plan. That's only about 20,000 acres above the current total, although the law allows exceptions for parcels that would meet needs such as conservation easements and trail connections.
Opposition to state land ownership sometimes comes from local governments, particularly in rural areas where it erodes the property tax base. The Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula together have four national forests and wide stretches of state forests, all of which are exempt from local taxation.
The federal and state governments are supposed to make offsetting payments to their local counterparts. But cash-strapped Michigan has sent less than it owed in recent years. Pending legislation would recalculate the state's obligations and require them to be met in full. That's only fair, said Ben Bodkin, legislative affairs director for the Michigan Association of Counties.
"I love to go and recreate up north, and I have a responsibility to pay for it so the county can send the sheriff or an ambulance if I need it," he said.
Only about 30 percent of the land in Luce County in the eastern Upper Peninsula is subject to local taxation and being shortchanged by the state makes matters worse, county treasurer Debbie Johnson said.
"If a private landowner decided they didn't want to pay their full tax bill they'd lose their land, but the state doesn't," she said. "If they can't, maybe they should sell a little of their land."
Creagh said the Snyder administration supports the repayment legislation and is taking other steps to mend fences with counties and townships, including a promise not to fund projects through a trust fund for land purchases and improvements without local government support.
"We're going to be sure we're good neighbors," Creagh said.