by Drew YoungeDyke, Public Relations Manager

Last Wednesday morning, we started fielding calls from reporters asking us about comments made by Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) on the Senate floor, some even asking “what did you do to him?” According to the newspaper reports, Casperson called a column in Michigan OutofDoors Magazine, by Executive Director Dan Eichinger, a “hit piece,” and said that statements within it were “fraudulent” for attacking his recently-introduced legislation to divest state land. Except … absolutely nowhere in the column did it ever mention him or his legislation, SB 39 and 40.

The column, “In Defense of Public Lands,” wasn’t about him. It was about a multi-year trend in the state legislature demonizing state land under false pretenses and why those pretenses are false.

But since he brought it up…

Talking points distributed by Sen. Casperson about Senate Bills 39 and 40 purport it does a lot of things. They actually do a lot of other things, like a Christmas tree of every bad idea about public land that’s been generated in the last couple of years.

For instance, the bills purport to lift the land cap that Sen. Casperson introduced and passed in 2012, except… it reinstates that land cap every five years, unless the legislature approves a new DNR land plan every five years.

When the Land Cap Bill was going through the legislature in 2012, a compromise bill was reached and passed that put a temporary land cap on southern Michigan, which expires this year, and places a permanent cap on northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula that will be removed once the legislature approves a DNR land plan. The DNR worked with stakeholder groups like MUCC and other conservation, environmental, energy, timber and local government groups to craft and adopt a comprehensive land strategy. That was over 18 months ago, and the only piece of legislation introduced to uphold the legislature’s end of the bargain went nowhere.
When Governor Snyder signed the bill, he issued a letter of explanation, a rare move, writing, “Once the plan is complete, I will call upon the legislature to quickly adopt the plan, removing the land cap from northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.”

Now, instead of a clean bill approving the land plan and lifting the land cap, SB 39 reinstates it every five years subject to the legislature’s approval of a new land plan every five years, when it’s taken the legislature a year-and-a-half to even address this land plan. How can we trust the legislature to approve a land plan every five years when it hasn’t shown the least bit of initiative to approve the one required by the Land Cap Bill and finalized a year and a half ago?

The bills also purport to make sure payments in lieu of taxes (PILT’s) on state land from the state to local governments are made in full, except… legislation already doing this has already been passed, on multiple occasions, since 2011.

Public Acts 603 and 604 of 2012, for example, were also introduced by Sen. Casperson and Senator Dawin Booher (R-Evart), who also co-sponsored SB 39 and sponsored SB 40 and SB 206 (more on that later). At the time, Sen. Casperson said in a statement:

“I sponsored this reform because it is time for the state to meet its obligation for the land it owns. Michigan residents are not allowed to pay only part of their taxes, and neither should the state. This will ensure that schools and locals receive payments on time and in full, and will also ensure that the cost of owning property is fully taken into consideration as the state looks at buying more land.”

So if the 2012 legislation ensured that PILT payments are made “on time and in full,” then why would we need SB 39 and 40 to do what the same legislators introducing both packages already claimed to have done two years ago?

And let’s not forget that the reason that PILT payments had not been paid on time and in full before that 2012 legislation is because the legislature did not appropriate the money for the DNR to pay it on time and in full, and that it is not the “state’s land,” it is land owned by the people of Michigan, you and me; it is managed for us in trust by the state.

Oh yeah, and as part of our hunting and fishing license fee increase last year, hunters and anglers paid an additional $400,000 to local governments  for payments in lieu of taxes on the public lands we hunt.

This legislation also claims to improve access to state lands. However, “improve” is a subjective term, and it certainly doesn’t improve access for most hunters. What it does is require that all state lands be open to all forms of access, with a few limited exceptions. One of those is for land acquired through Pittman-Robertson or Game & Fish funds (excise taxes on our firearm purchases or from hunting & fishing license revenues). Except… many lands currently managed for hunting purposes may have been purchased through other fund sources, like the Natural Resources Trust Fund (oil & gas royalties) or through tax reversion, contiguous to game & fish purchased lands and managed with game & fish funds for years.

In other words, our hunting license dollars have made investments in this land over the years to manage it as hunting and fishing lands, and opening it up to “all” forms of access would mean that you now have dirt bikes on grouse enhanced management trails, horse convoys on hunter walking trails during hunting season, mountain bikers on ORV trails, cross-country skiers on snowmobile trails… you get the picture. With almost 4.6 million acres of land, we have enough that we can have different lands and trails open for different types of access, without making all lands open to all types of access, which actually diminishes the quality of those lands for each different type of access. Additionally, SB 206, introduced by Sen. Booher, would allow the Natural Resources Trust Fund to purchase fish and game land that we the people already own so that the rules that keep it maintained for game and fish activities like hunting and fishing can be removed so that every other outdoor activity under the sun is allowed, even those which diminish the property’s utility for hunting and fishing!

Further, SB 39 would mandate that every temporary logging trail on state land must be permanently maintained for motorized access, with every gate and berm removed. While we agree that recently-closed roads should be evaluated to see which ones can be reopened (which the DNR has pledged to do), a one-size-fits-all strategy ignores practical realities that sometimes roads are closed for good reason, such as wildlife habitat protection, hunter walking trails, grouse trails, and to keep a very limited acreage of lands in a more semi-wild state and to reduce motorized traffic disruption to wildlife and activities like hunting. Requiring every new logging road to remain open as a permanent road will also create backlash against logging on state land, which is necessary for vegetation regeneration for wildlife habitat. Once again, we should absolutely look at which roads can be reopened and we should reopen those, and which new logging roads can connect trail systems, but we should not legislatively mandate that every road be open and every new logging trail be converted to a permanent road.

Additionally, the issue of access is already addressed in the land plan everyone is still waiting on the legislature to adopt: It contains measurable objectives for improving access to state-managed lands, including completion of a motorized road plan to ensure both motorized and non-motorized access to state-managed lands. But we can’t hold the DNR accountable for doing that until the legislature approves the public land plan and lifts the cap. So rather than legislatively micro-managing every mile of road and trail on public land in the state, all the legislature needs to do to improve access to our public lands is approve the public land plan it asked for in the original Land Cap Bill.

SB 39 also puts artificial timelines on the DNR to evaluate and make decisions on applications nominating the purchase of state land, triggering an automatic approval of the sale if the DNR can’t meet the deadline, while also imposing ceilings on permit fees, regardless of how much of your license dollars have to be spent reviewing those applications for their impact to fish and wildlife. It also applies the same procedure for all land purchase applications as to surplus lands while making “any commercial activity” sufficient grounds to declare land as surplus. Never mind that the public land plan already designates over 240,000 acres as potential surplus land that it will evaluate to be put up for sale. So rather than rigging the game to make any patch of land ripe for the picking by private interests, the legislature should approve the plan so that the DNR can start evaluating which parcels ought to be offered for sale in line with strategic goals.

In other words, in a thousand cuts SB 39 and 40 make it easier for private entities to force the sale of your public lands, where you hunt, trap and access fishing locations, where you’ve invested your hunting, fishing and trapping license dollars in managing that land for fish and game habitat, where you’ve paid for payments in lieu of taxes to local governments through your license dollars, and where its very existence guarantees that you, your fellow hunters, anglers and trappers, and the future hunters, anglers and trappers of Michigan, will have a place to hunt, fish and trap.

It should be harder for the state to sell your public hunting land, not easier. It should be harder for the state to convert your public hunting land into a parking lot, subdivision, strip mall, golf course or potato farm, not easier. And whenever those decisions are made, they should be made in accordance with a public land management strategic plan, developed with public input from hunting, fishing, outdoor recreation, conservation, environmental, timber, energy development, and local government stakeholders, like the one that’s been sitting on the shelf for eighteen months, not legislatively mandated by one or two politicians who didn’t get absolutely everything they wanted in that plan. No one got everything they wanted in that plan, because it was the consensus of multiple different interests negotiating and compromising to reach a solution that did the most good and the least harm for the most people. This legislation simply takes the pet interests of a couple of politicians, elevates them above all other interests in public land, and forces them on the people of Michigan who own that land regardless of the consequences.

The politicians who introduced this bill package have said that it’s a work in progress, that it’s not a final bill, and that they welcome stakeholder input. Except that… the bill has been introduced. It’s not a draft bill. They didn’t invite stakeholders to a meeting and say, “this is what we’re considering.” They dropped the bill, then started inviting groups to the table to sell them on it. And we were willing to keep our analysis internal until we had a chance to communicate our concerns with the bill sponsors.

But we won’t stay quiet when we’re attacked on the Senate floor just because we support keeping public hunting lands in public hands. As I wrote earlier, the column in Michigan OutofDoors Magazine was not about this bill package or Senator Casperson specifically. But Senator Casperson decided to make it about him and his bill package. This has nothing to do with any individual politician, but the public land policy at the heart of it is something that needs to be addressed. And they said they wanted stakeholder input, so here it is:

We’ve had enough of this piece-by-piece attack on public land ownership and management. Enough micro-managing by narrow special interests at the expense of every hunter, angler, trapper and outdoor recreation tourist in Michigan. Enough holding public land – and the legislature – hostage to the whims of the squeakiest wheel.

When Governor Snyder signed the Land Cap Bill, he didn’t write that he’d call upon the legislature to lift the cap, reinstate it every five years, and tack on a lot of junk that wasn’t in the plan to make it easier to privatize public land and ruin public hunting lands. He said he’d call upon the legislature to adopt the plan and remove the cap. And that’s what it needs to do.

We’ve worked too hard protecting our rights to hunt over the past few years to surrender our places to hunt. And we hold those attacking either in the same regard. It’s time for a proactive solution that addresses the legitimate issues with public land management without all the extraneous junk contained in SB 39, SB 40 and SB 206. It’s time to ensure that public hunting land stays public and open for hunting. And it starts with approving and implementing the public land plan and lifting the land cap.

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