Department of Natural Resources
The administration of approximately 4.6 million acres of Michigan’s public land base and 6.4 million acres of mineral rights is no small task. Further complicating this already daunting task are the numerous types of land ownership rights, variety of funding requirements, and a steady number of inquiries and requests for a range of land transactions. To accomplish the task of administering the public land base successfully, the DNR uses a variety of tools and resources.
One such tool used by the DNR to help guide the consolidation of DNR-managed land and focus ownership and future acquisition and disposition in priority areas are dedicated project boundaries. The dedicated project boundaries encompass state forests, state game areas and wildlife areas, and state park and recreation areas. The project boundaries include both current DNR-managed public lands as well as privately owned lands that may be a priority for the DNR to acquire in the future if the property becomes available for sale. Consolidation of DNR-managed public lands is especially important to improve efficiency in land management, establish recognizable ownership boundaries, and reduce the likelihood of private encroachment.
Dedicated project boundaries do not encompass state trails, DNR facilities, boating access sites and public water access sites, all of which are also a priority for public ownership. Additionally, lands outside of the dedicated project boundaries may be acquired, as needed, to fulfill the DNR’s mission. The dedicated project boundaries, last updated in 2020, are periodically reviewed and updated to reflect changing priorities and land ownership patterns such as land subdivision and development.
The DNR also conducts a periodic comprehensive statewide review of DNR-managed public lands. The last such review effort occurred between 2004 and 2008. To comply with and implement the 2013 Managed Public Land Strategy, another State Land Review effort began in September 2020. This effort involves the comprehensive multi-divisional, multi-level review of approximately 240,000 acres of DNR-managed public lands. The review will be conducted on a county-by-county basis in groups of 10 counties at a time. Recommendations for the land under review will receive a thorough public and stakeholder review prior to the DNR director making a final decision on the classification of the parcels. This thorough review will occur over the next few years.
In addition, the comprehensive effort of the State Land Review, the DNR routinely reviews and enters into a variety of land transactions with private landowners in an effort to improve efficiencies in management, ensure access to public lands, and focus ownership in priority areas. Among the most common land transactions that the DNR considers are land exchanges and disposals, both of which are thoroughly vetted at multiple levels and from a variety of perspectives. The multi-disciplinary review of each land transaction culminates in a recommendation from the internal Land Exchange Review Committee to the DNR director, who makes a final decision.
The DNR is responsible for managing a variety of land ownership rights. In addition to 4.6 million acres of surface ownership and 6.4 million acres of mineral rights, other land rights managed by the DNR include over 150,000 acres of conservation easement lands, 25 million acres of Great Lakes bottomlands (regulated by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy), leases (including the DNR as the lessor and lessee), access easements, trail easements, timber rights, hunting rights, and restrictive covenants on deeds.
A majority of the public land base managed by the DNR was acquired as a result of tax reversion. The land became state-owned due to the non-payment of taxes, most commonly in the early 20th century and during the Depression era and due to widespread removal of the timber resource and farm failures. However, the DNR is now much more focused when it comes to land acquisitions and typically acquires new lands through the purchase of privately owned lands from a willing seller. The DNR uses a variety of funding sources to acquire these priority lands for an array of uses. The funding sources vary including federal, state, DNR-generated and private donations. Each funding source may include special requirements regarding how the land acquired with those funds can be used. While dedicated funding is the most common method for acquiring land, the DNR does receive gifts of land and, to a lesser extent, has received lands through legal settlements and through legislative means.
The means by which the DNR acquires the land that it manages plays a key role in determining which type of Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) are paid on the property. PILT are statutorily required to be made by the state of Michigan to local units of government for public land that is managed by the DNR and for privately owned land that is retained for long-term timber production. Lands administered by the DNR are the only state-managed lands on which PILT is required to be paid. No other state agency is responsible for paying PILT on the lands that they administer. PILT payments are made from line-item appropriations in the Department of Treasury appropriations act and the School Aid Act. The types of PILT payments are divided into three categories: swamp and tax reverted lands, purchased lands and Commercial Forest Act lands. The funding source for PILT payments depends on which PILT category the land falls into and ranges from the state General Fund to restricted funds such as the Game and Fish Protection Fund. Likewise, the amount of PILT that is paid also depends on the PILT category of the land with purchased lands having the highest PILT requirement at the full assessed tax rate, with the exception of the state education tax and Commercial Forest Act lands having the lowest rate. The PILT payments are distributed to each county, which is then responsible for appropriately distributing payments to each township.