State land use rules expected to tighten

By Steve Griffin Field Editor

Midland, Mich. — If you’ve gotten used to holding big events on
state-owned land, or making a few bucks on that public turf, listen
up: Some changes seem on the way.

At best, you’re going to need to apply for a permit from the
DNR, do it at least 90 days out, and probably pay for the
license.

At worst, you might not get to do it at all.

Nothing’s firm yet, as DNR land use managers continue to sift
through comments gathered from three public meetings held last
month.

In one sense, change is on the way. In another, nothing’s
new.

“Actually, commercial operations have been unlawful since at
least 1973 unless a permit has been obtained,” DNR land use manager
Scott Whitcomb told Michigan Outdoor News. “But there has not been
a process in place for people to apply for a permit, a standard
procedure for evaluating the proposed use.”

In the past, the DNR has rather casually allowed short-term,
organized events and commercial operations, “as long as they were
compatible with the management and purpose of the lands, were
consistent with DNR mission and policies, and did not conflict with
other uses of the land,” according to a DNR news release announcing
the meetings.

The new program would tighten up the process, reviewing each
application.

“Under this revised procedure, we will have more uniform
administration of organized events and commercial operations on
state land,” Whitcomb said. “And we will help ensure that public
resources continue to be protected.”

What’s an organized event? In general terms, anything that draws
more than about 20 people. Think ATV or dogsled outings, Scout
gatherings, triathlon races, and even big family reunions.

And what’s a commercial operation? One in which money changes
hands. Think hunting and fishing guides, commercial berry and
mushroom pickers, canoe liveries.

Whitcomb is clear that the goal is not driving commercial
operators out.

“Many of them provide valuable services; they facilitate the use
of the outdoors by people who otherwise would not be able to use
them,” he said.

Indeed, Whitcomb said, he and his family recently used a livery
service for a canoe and kayak outing in northern Michigan, “and it
was a great service.”

“We recognize that there are a lot of commercial operations and
events,” he said. “Putting a permit system in place will help make
a determination if the use is appropriate or not. We’ll make sure
that it is covered by liability insurance, and bonded if there is
the potential for damage to our facilities.”

Fees are a big issue, even though they will probably at best
cover the costs of the review process.

Whitcomb said fees will be levied on a sliding scale.

“The lowest-impact event might be exempt or carry a nominal fee;
higher wear and tear calls for higher fees,” he said.

Whitcomb said managers have looked at past events and projected
that most would emerge as medium-impact events, with fees of $50 to
$200.

Some large commercial operations, such as canoe liveries, may
pay $400 to $500 per year.

And major events, such as a large hydroplane race, might carry a
permit fee of $1,000 or more, Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said user-group meetings and the public hearings are
leading to fine-tuning of the plan.

“As you can imagine, when nothing consistent is in place, when
you’re trying to make it more consistent, there’s a lot of learning
to do.

“They keep bringing to our attention different scenarios,” he
said of user groups. “We’re constantly tinkering with this.”

One thing user groups made clear, he said, is that there needs
to be a way for permit applicants to appeal land-manager decisions.
It’s being formulated now.

“Most user groups are supportive of some kind of regulation,”
Whitcomb said. “They’re cautious, waiting to see how it affects
them specifically. But I think that once they’re assured we don’t
want to put anyone out of business, they’ll support us.

“We have 4.5 million acres of state lands. There have to be some
rules”

And, of course, ways for people to comply with them.

Current and proposed land use rules can be reviewed at the DNR’s
web site, www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Whitcomb’s goal is to present a proposal to DNR Director Rebecca
Humphries this fall.

There’s still time — but not much — to weigh in on this first
phase. Send written comments by July 9, by mail to DNR Wildlife
Division, Attn: Public Lands Specialist, P.O. Box 30444, Lansing,
MI 48909, or by e-mail to DNR-commercialoperations@michigan.gov.

Whitcomb said comments will be taken and considered all
summer.

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