MI: Commercial Forest Act causes some confusion

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories
examining the management issues regarding land enrolled under the
Commercial Forest Act.

Marquette, Mich. – Questions and confusion are running rampant
regarding Commercial Forest Act lands in northern Michigan.

Action by landowners on some of these lands has hunters howling
that access is being denied or reduced, creating friction between
recreationists and the DNR, which is charged with enforcing the
rules.

In an effort to explain those rules involved with Commercial Forest
Act lands, the DNR held a series of public meetings last year. This
had some user groups believing the DNR had changed the rules
involved with CFA lands, but the meetings were held only to explain
the laws already in place.

“The public meetings explaining public access rules for Commercial
Forest (Act) land were arranged due to the number of calls we were
receiving from the public and from CF landowners, who were confused
about what activities were allowed on CF lands,” DNR Deputy
Director Stacy Welling told Michigan Outdoor News.

Some user groups had questions concerning leaving traps,
treestands, and bait out overnight on CF lands. There also were
complaints about commercial activity such as guiding and bear
baiting on CF lands. Some landowners were curious about what
penalties they might face if commercial activities were taking
place on their land.

“We felt this was a great opportunity to get everyone on the same
page, to explain the rules and answer any questions in a public
forum,” Welling said. “I felt the meetings were well-attended by
both the user groups and the landowners, and we have received a lot
of positive feedback from the same groups regarding the
meetings.”

According to Shirley Businski, the DNR’s CF program leader in
Lansing, the Commercial Forest Act was written in 1925 to encourage
timber production on private lands. At the time, it was written
into the act that landowners must allow foot access to the public
to hunt and fish these CF lands.

Some hunters have said that in recent years some roads on CF lands
have been gated and closed to vehicles. However, in a 1985 lawsuit
by a fishing club, the court ruled that longtime use of a road by
the public did not constitute an easement. The use of such roads is
up to the individual landowner. The landowner can legally give some
users permission to drive on the roads and still restrict others
from doing so. The fencing and gating of CF lands is legal as long
as there is reasonable foot access.

Now, some hunters have asked, is an all-day walk across CF land to
get to where they want to go really “reasonable” access?

The law gets confusing, depending on who owns the CF lands and what
their individual rules are. Although hunting and fishing are legal
and a person can use a blind, treestand, or bait while hunting on
CF lands, the landowner can prohibit the user from leaving those
items on the land overnight.

Using bear hunting as an example, hunters worry that under the law,
if a landowner prohibited leaving bear bait out overnight, that
essentially would close the land to hunting bears over bait. It
also could discourage deer hunters who hunt from treestands and
blinds from using the land.

Trapping is defined as hunting under the CFA and is therefore legal
on CF lands. But there is a glitch here, too. Any trap left
overnight without the landowner’s permission could be considered
litter.

A trapper would need permission from the landowner to establish a
trapline on CF lands. Because the commercial aspect of trapping –
selling fur – takes place off CF land, the selling of fur trapped
on CF lands is legal. Snares are not legal on CF lands.

Any type of guiding for deer, bears, or other animals is considered
a commercial use of the land and is therefore prohibited by
law.

Because hunting and fishing are the only activities that landowners
are required by law to allow, they can deny access to prohibit
hiking, bird watching, biking, or any other outdoor pursuit.

Hunters are prohibited from building blinds, using nails, bolts or
screw-in tree steps, and cutting vegetation to create shooting
lanes without the landowner’s permission.

Because there are nearly 1,700 landowners with CF lands in the
northern two-thirds of the state – totaling 2.2 million acres –
knowing what is legal on any given piece of CF land is
challenging.

The best policy is for the hunter or angler to identify the owner
of the land with a plat book, and make a call to see what the
individual landowner’s policies are.

Maps and legal descriptions of commercial forest lands are
available online at www.michigan.gov/privateforestland.

According to Welling, the access rules and commercial activity
rules for CF land are written into statute or have been interpreted
by court cases or attorney general opinions.

“The DNR can enforce the regulations in the statute or supported by
AG opinion, but these are not rules created by the department and
we are not attempting to change them,” Welling said. “We are simply
trying to get the correct information out there to help user groups
and landowners, who have been contacting the department looking for
answers to their questions about public access to CF lands and the
public activities allowed there.”

According to Welling, any changes in CFA laws regarding hunting and
fishing, and prohibited commercial activity other than forestry,
would need to be changed by the Legislature.

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