New Michigan Law Caps Amount of State Ownership in Public Land

Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder recently signed into law a bill which caps the amount of land the state can own at 4.65 million acres until the legislature approves a strategic plan for buying and selling land in the future. 

The legislation (SB 248), which was introduced by Senator Tom Casperson as a way to address concerns raised by localities and townships that are located in and surrounded by large tracts of public land owned by the state which limits their property tax base. The state, in turn, sends these communities payments in lieu of taxes or PILTs, but many in these communities claim the schedule for receiving theses funds is haphazard and insufficient. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the state owns more land (12 percent) than any other east of the Mississippi River and the federal government owns and additional 3.1 million acres (8 percent). Much of the public land owned by the state is located in the Upper Peninsula, where nearly half the land area is in some type of public ownership. Casperson said in a statement, "We must improve management of what is currently owned rather than spending more money to continually make land purchases when the state is not even meeting its obligations on what is currently owned. The everyday citizen is not able to keep land if they can’t pay their property taxes, so why should the state be any different?” 

SB 248 would cap the amount of land currently owned by the state and managed by the Department of Natural Resources at approximately 4.65 million acres. The legislation requires the agency to develop a plan for the acquisition and sale of land with an emphasis in the plan for multi-use recreation, including motorized and non-motorized uses, and public access.  If the legislature approves the agency's plan by passing another bill, the cap on land ownership would be removed.

During the legislative process, the state agency expressed initial concern with the legislation because it could limit its flexibility to purchase and manage its land holdings because of different mixes in federal funding sources and varying conservation priorities across the state. In 2011, a spokesperson for the agency told the Grand Rapids Press, "We have concerns about putting a hard cap on (publicly owned lands) for lots of reasons. It’s impossible for us to predict what the market conditions will be in 10, 20, 30 years from now. Some of the land we have purchased ... has federal funding involved. So for us to sell it involves a lot of hoops to jump through."

Opposition from conservation groups was strong, but for varying reasons. For example, Michigan United Conservation Clubs opposed a hard cap on public land, but supported a proposal with more flexibility that would establish a cap based on rolling three-year averages. Other environmental groups, like the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and the Heart of the Lakes Center for Land Conservation Policy, expressed more stringent opposition to any types of caps and stated that proponents of SB 248 were using problems with PILT payments as a way to promote more land development and that placing caps on public land ownership was short-sighted as, "Acreage alone does not determine the type, intensity or expense of management needs for public land."

Upon signing SB 248 into law, Governor Snyder urged lawmakers to quickly pass a strategic public land management plan so he could lift the cap.