Article #64, October, 2002
By Bill Cook
One of the greatest threats to our Michigan forests is development and parcelization, although these things might be a little harder to see in the Upper Peninsula. Development might be changes such as houses, golf courses, and commercial enterprises. Parcelization is the break-up of larger forest ownerships into increasingly smaller ownerships.
A forest converted to something other than a forest, or divided into pieces too small to manage, results in the reduction of the many values forests generate. This is a nation-wide concern.
An important recent study was made in the forests of the southeastern states. The single largest threat to those forests was identified as development. Michigan forests have remarkably similar pressures.
Development is something necessary as our population grows, yet particularly sensitive or valuable forests need to be protected. One of the ways to accomplish this is through the use of conservation easements.
A conservation easement is an agreement attached to the land, for a specific period of time or forever, which specifies how the land can and cannot be used. Most easements prohibit residential and commercial development and may specifically allow forest uses such as timber harvest and forest management. Landowners are then eligible for any tax reductions due to restrictions placed upon the property.
Conservation easements are entered into voluntarily by the landowner and the forest remains in private ownership. Property rights and restrictions are passed with the land from owner to owner, similar to Michigan’s Commercial Forest Program.
The federal government has recognized the need to keep important forests as forests. The “Forest Legacy Program” provides money to purchase conservation easements, and in some cases, full fee purchase. Specifically, this program purchases development rights, in perpetuity, in order to keep working forests working. If a landowner has forest that meets program criteria, and is willing to sell their development rights, the federal government stands ready to purchase them. Each forest owner enters into an agreement specific to their property. This does not give the federal government any claim to rights not specifically agreed upon by the landowner.
Before these federal dollars are released, a lead state agency must be named and an assessment of need must be done. That means specific forests must be identified that will become eligible for the program. In Michigan’s case, the DNR has contracted with The Nature Conservancy to provide this assessment.
Already, about 35 states have signed-on or are in the process of participating in the Forest Legacy Program. Wisconsin has proposed over 35,000 acres. For more information about Michigan’s program, visit the DNR website at: www.michigan.gov/dnr and click on the “Forests, Land, and Water” button, or try the national site at: www.fs.fed.us/spf/coop/flp.htm.
The Forest Legacy Program is one example of a “conservation easement”. The concept is not new. Various land trusts and organizations offer similar programs to forest owners wishing to permanently protect their forests.
The long-standing Michigan Commercial Forest Program has been successful among corporate landowners. However, among private, non-industrial forest owners, the big catch is allowing foot access for hunting and fishing. Wisconsin has a two-tiered program where landowners can opt to open or close public access to hunting and fishing. Owners who wish to keep their property closed still receive tax reductions, but not quite as much as if they opened their property.
It is sometimes a sad thing to see forest land subdivided and sold off to numerous people. Perhaps like having a good will, forest owners should consider long-term protection of the values they hold for their land. There is more than one way to skin that cat.
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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at email@example.com or 906-786-1575.
by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005
J Road, Escanaba, MI 49829
906-786-1575 (voice), 906-786-9370 (fax), e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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