Skip to main content

2021-2027 Public Land Strategy

History of DNR-managed public lands in Michigan

Strategic land ownership has always been a priority for the people of Michigan. From the time Michigan became a state, its residents have been the owners of substantial acres of public land, held in trust by state government. Over the course of several decades, the state implemented a deliberative review of land ownership, making determinations about what lands should remain in a public trust and which lands would be more appropriate in private ownership. As a result, these lands, managed by the new Department of Conservation (precursor to the DNR), formed the foundation for the current-day state parks and recreation areas, boating access sites, historic sites, game and wildlife areas and state forests.

Excerpt from "The Land Nobody Wanted," published by Michigan State College in 1945

In 1921 state forests totaled 113,800 acres, state-owned game refuges were limited to a single one, and the system of State Parks was rudimentary. … By 1930 the area in state ownership was 1,700,000 acres. The state forests had been increased to 12, covering 600,000 acres. Game refuges numbered seven, embracing 53,900 acres and the complementary program of public hunting grounds to go with the sanctuaries was just getting under way. … in 1938, with tax sales resumed, the great impoundment of delinquency broke and over two million more acres came to the Conservation Department, just about doubling its holdings. In the meantime, another factor had entered the picture. Not only was the state retaining the bulk of its land, but the state was actually buying acres to add to its public domain. Game license funds had been set aside by statute to purchase choice parcels of game cover needed to augment the large tracts of leaner stuff on hand, and these parcels - principally deer yards - totaled thousands of acres annually. Later, a part of each fishing license fee was earmarked, again by the legislature, for the purchase of water frontage so the angling public might have better access to and more undisputed rights on lakes and streams. The federal Wildlife Restoration Act provides funds raised by an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, some of which may be used for land acquisition, and Michigan annually avails itself of this means, of obtaining title to acreage needed to provide more public hunting grounds.

(See appendix F)

Tax-reversion cycle

Early state directives 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).

During this period, unsustainable harvesting 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 focus shifted to 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 the tax-reversion cycle.

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 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 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 an extensive review in 1984, by the Task Force on Public Lands Policy, which found that the state needed to consolidate its ownership of land and "did not find a need for major changes to land management practices and philosophies."

In 1996, the Senate Select Committee on Public Land Ownership, Purchase and Management also conducted an extensive study of the DNR's land acquisition policy as well as other state land-holding agencies. The committee proposed seven "principle changes" in the state's land acquisition policy, including increasing flexibility in state programs to allow for shifts in land policy, adopting new attitudes and incentives to work with the private sector, and reaffirming the Legislature's role as the chief conservator of the state's natural assets.

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 resources benefits. In addition, consolidation of the state land base resulted in 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, adopted by the Legislature in 2018 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

The DNR manages public lands for multiple uses and 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 department-wide, regional and statewide perspectives. As a complement to the land strategy, each resource-managing division within the DNR has developed separate, more tactical management plans that specifically guide the management of state parks and recreation areas, state game and wildlife areas, state forests and state fisheries (see Appendix G).

This updated land strategy seeks to align and leverage our divisional and departmentwide strategies and priorities - including making Michigan's outdoors more accessible to individuals of all abilities, combating invasive species, providing for natural resource protection and outdoor recreation opportunities - to set a comprehensive, coherent direction for the DNR to effectively manage the lands held in the public's trust for current and future generations.

Previous  |  Next