Section 1

Why a Land Strategy?

In simple terms, a comprehensive land strategy guides the Department of Natural Resources in its stewardship of the millions of acres of public lands owned by the people of Michigan. That includes 3.8 million acres of state forests, 357,000 acres of state parks and 364,000 acres of state game and wildlife areas.

This strategy is built around several components:

  • Overarching principles that guide decision-making and reflect the department’s mission.
  • Specific goals, strategies and measurable objectives to track progress.
  • Land information, including project boundaries, land transaction processes and types of land ownership rights.
  • Resulting outcomes.

Whether scheduling planting rotations for a large northern Michigan forest management unit, ensuring access to statewide recreation opportunities or working with a city planner on a proposed urban pathway, keeping these components at the forefront of our minds will help accomplish the strategy’s three main purposes:

  1. Demonstrating how responsible management of the state’s large public land base is important to the protection of our natural and cultural resources for:
    1. The health and well-being of Michigan residents.
    2. The quality of life in our state.
    3. Our heritage and identity as Michiganders.
  2. Setting priorities and guiding actions related to the land base held in public trust and administered by the DNR.
  3. Complying with Public Act 240 of 2018, which requires the DNR to:
    1. Provide an updated strategy to the Legislature for consideration and approval by July 1, 2021.
    2. Provide a report on progress toward the goals defined in the 2013 public land strategy.
    3. Detail proposed changes to department goals, including the rationale for the changes.
    4. Engage and collaborate with local units of government.

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Introduction: Why Public Lands Matter, How a Management Strategy Helps

Mountain biking on a scenic forest trail. A family beach trip on a summer day. Heading to the woods to take part in Michigan’s time-honored hunting tradition. Camping by the lake. Bird watching in a wetland area. Exploring the state’s rich history among towering white pines, limestone cliffs and Great Lakes shorelines.

If you enjoy these activities, or the countless other outdoor experiences woven into the fabric of our lives as Michiganders, chances are that you use public lands.

The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for taking care of the approximately 4.6 million acres of public lands that are owned by Michigan residents. Those lands include state forests, game and wildlife areas, parks, trails and other DNR-managed spaces. Diligent management of these lands is not accomplished by the DNR alone. It is achieved through collaboration with members of the public as well as a variety of stakeholders, conservation partners and industries.

This strategy provides a framework for the conservation and stewardship of DNR-managed public lands to ensure their best use for the benefit of Michigan residents, visitors and the state’s natural and cultural resources. It provides goals, strategies and measurable objectives to guide us in:

  • Protecting and preserving Michigan’s natural and cultural resources.
  • Providing spaces for quality outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Perform responsible natural resource management.

The use of the state’s public lands has changed over time, but certain fundamentals have not. While the DNR has the responsibility to respond to public demands for recreation and resources, it also has a duty to manage for the protection and enhancement of wildlife and fisheries habitat, native ecosystems, sustainable forestry and minerals development, and the preservation of Michigan’s unique cultural resources.

Careful and thoughtful oversight of our public lands has led Michigan to not only be a great place to live and work, but to be regarded as one of America’s favorite travel experiences – no matter the time of year. Whether there’s snow on our trails, or our forests are ablaze with fall color, residents and tourists of all abilities get to have incredible experiences on DNR-managed lands through diverse and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities.

When lands are well taken care of, they strengthen our state in several ways. Public lands support Michigan’s environmental health through air pollution removal, water quality protection and storm water management. They provide residents with ample outdoor recreation opportunities – often very close to home – to be physically active, clear away mental stress and discover new pursuits. These public lands also play a key role in Michigan’s economic health by enhancing local and regional economies.

This public land strategy provides goals, strategies and measurable objectives to guide the department in protecting Michigan’s natural and cultural resources, providing spaces for quality outdoor recreation opportunities and promoting responsible natural resources management.

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History of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and public lands

From the time Michigan became a state, our government has been in the real estate business and the owner of substantial acres of land. State policy, shaped by public opinion, determined how Michigan’s public lands were viewed and how much land was kept in state ownership.

The public land the Department of Natural Resources currently manages – state parks and recreation areas, boating access sites, historic sites, game and wildlife areas, and state forests – was acquired through a deliberative process that reflected state policy and public opinion at the time.

Tax reversions on state land

Early state policy supported the sale of public land for settlement and development. Many of these lands went through several cycles of reverting to the state for nonpayment of taxes as the land was cleared of timber and subsequent attempts at agriculture failed. From the 1890s through the 1930s, the state underwent a series of economic downturns that caused these tax reversions – over 116 million acres (the land reverted multiple times) in a 22-year period.

During this period, clear-cutting of forests was widespread, wildlife was being exploited and agriculture efforts were failing.

Conserving resources

The exploitation of land and natural resources triggered the rise of the conservation movement and state policy shifted to a focus on wise allocation of land, rather than sale for short-term gain.

Various commissions, including Public Lands and Fisheries (1873), Forestry (1899) and Parks (1919), were created to manage natural resources and stop tax reversions.

These commissions were subsequently eliminated and their functions merged into the Department of Conservation, created in 1921 under the direction of a new Conservation Commission.

One of the first rulings of the Conservation Commission was that state lands bordering on the Great Lakes or any inland lake were not to be sold but were to be held for the “enjoyment of the people.”

Throughout its tenure, the Department of Conservation – precursor of the Department of Natural Resources – set forth a strategy for its Game and Forestry divisions to work together to manage public land only with concurrence from the other division. This approach was similar to the current concept of co-management, a nationally recognized model that continues to be the cornerstone of DNR public land management.

Reviewing lands for value

In 1922, the Michigan Land Economic Survey was created to review the lands in northern Michigan and determine their value for agriculture or whether they were more suitable for recreation, other public uses or should be sold. As a result of this review, by 1950, over 1.3 million acres were sold, and 130,000 acres were turned over to local governments. The remaining acres were added to state forests, wildlife areas and state parks.

Looking at land ownership

Michigan’s public land policy went through extensive reviews in 1984, by the Task Force on Public Lands Policy, and in 1996, by the Senate Select Committee on Public Land Ownership.

In 2003, the Ownership Strategy was initiated to review the DNR land ownership pattern, evaluate DNR-managed public lands from a natural resources perspective and dispose of those parcels that did not contribute to the overall mission of the DNR. The purpose of the review was to continue the ongoing effort to consolidate state land ownership for a variety of economic, outdoor recreation and other natural resource benefits. In addition, it sought land management efficiencies by reducing trespass issues and addressing shooting safety zone encroachments and the need to monitor and survey public/private boundary lines.

Public Act 240 of 2012 required the creation of a strategic plan for public land ownership. The resulting strategy, originally created in 2013 and updated as detailed in this document, provides a framework for the conservation and ownership of public lands to ensure their best use for the benefit of Michigan residents, visitors and the state’s natural and cultural resources.

Where we are today

Today, the DNR manages state-owned public lands for multiple uses and multiple objectives, using principles of ecosystem management, technologies such as geographic information systems and adaptive management techniques to sustain the diversity and productivity of Michigan's natural resources. This updated strategic plan focuses on overarching principles, goals, strategies and measurable objectives from a DNR-wide and statewide perspective. Each resource-managing division within the DNR has developed separate, more tactical management plans that specifically guide the management of state parks, state game and wildlife areas, state forests and state fisheries.

This updated strategy seeks to align and leverage our divisional and departmentwide strategies and priorities – including making Michigan’s outdoors more accessible to those of all abilities, combating invasive species, providing for natural resource protection and outdoor recreation opportunities through the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and others – to set a comprehensive, coherent direction for the DNR.

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How the DNR is Funded

Less than 15% of the DNR’s budget comes from state taxes (General Fund). Our bills are paid from about 50 different funds, many of which have unique revenue streams, including user fees paid by those who hunt, fish, snowmobile, boat, camp, harvest timber, ride ORVs or otherwise take part in natural resource-based activities.

Fiscal year 2021 original appropriations by fund source: total $469.6 million
(Numbers in chart are in millions)

a pie chart showing the breakdown of DNR funding sources

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