Lansing — Upper Peninsula state Sen. Tom Casperson is expected to soon introduce legislation to address public access issues on properties enrolled in Michigan’s Commercial Forest program.
The development comes as DNR officials field applications to transfer some Commercial Forest properties to a new Qualified Forest program that doesn’t require public access, as well as a Michigan attorney general memo of advice that now allows trappers to leave their traps on Commercial Forest property overnight without the landowner’s permission.
The DNR’s Commercial Forest program gives private landowners a significant tax reduction in exchange for managing their land for timber and allowing hunting and fishing activities on their property. But hunters, particularly in the Upper Peninsula, have complained that some land managers are limiting motorized access and ancillary activities, like trapping, baiting, and camping.
Michigan law states that participants in the CF program “shall not deny” the public access to hunt and fish, but court precedent establishes that motorized access and ancillary activities are not required by law. Hunters contend that over roughly the last decade, some land managers have used their discretion to block off roads and to prohibit overnight camping or baiting, while providing full access to friends or company employees.
“We’re setting, I think, a bad example,” said Casperson, whose family runs a logging business. “When it gets to your friends and family can go in and (others) can’t, it causes problems.”
Casperson met with some U.P. land managers last year to discuss complaints he’s received from hunters, and to encourage more cooperation from those in the Commercial Forest program, but has made little headway.
“I laid it out to them that I have received a lot of calls. Some people think they are taking advantage of the program,” he said.
Keith Huff, a director with the Michigan Bear Hunters Association, said the problems with access, camping, and other issues have gotten worse in the last decade in areas where he hunts near Newberry.
“We used to have pretty good range and liberty with the forest companies. They gave us access on all the old roads that were created back in the 1800s, in the logging days,” he said. “They never had a serious problem with sportsmen as long as we didn’t cut their trees.”
Huff also stressed that not all land managers apply the same rules, Commercial Forest properties can change ownership often, and few signs are posted to inform the public about which properties they can access, which creates a confusing situation.
“The only thing it says in the law is they have to allow access,” said Mike Thorman, legislative leader for the Michigan Hunting Dog Federation. “The problem to me is it leaves it all open to interpretation, and in my mind if it’s open to interpretation, the (DNR) should come down on the side of the people of the state.”
DNR Shirley, Businski, Commercial Forest Program leader, said officials must follow the letter of the law, which isn’t very specific. Only one paragraph in the 13-page statute even mentions public access, she said.
“When you look at the whole statute, the public access piece is not addressed in the statute,” she said. “It says thou shall not deny the public the privilege to hunt and fish. It doesn’t say anything about what kind of access.”
DNR officials have received complaints from hunters about lost access over the years, as well as questions about leaving traps overnight, camping, and other issues on CF properties, but legal precedent establishes that only foot access is required by the statute. The department recently requested a legal opinion from the attorney general on the specific issue of leaving traps overnight.
“What we had always said was people could trap, but had to ask the landowners permission to leave their traps unattended,” Businski said.
The AG, however, opined that the term hunting, as used elsewhere in the statute, would include trapping, and therefore trappers wouldn’t need special permission to leave traps overnight. Businski said DNR officials sent letters to CF property owners informing them they are changing the policy to reflect the AG’s opinion.
Other issues, such as overnight camping, baiting, and motorized access, however, remain problematic, and Casperson said staffers are crafting legislation he hopes to introduce this year to address those details.
MUCC officials said they’ve received complaints about access and other issues on CF lands for years, but would prefer to address the problems by working directly with landowners, rather than through legislation.
“We’d like to see how we could voluntarily work together,” said Amy Trotter, MUCC’s resource policy manager.
Some landowners in the CF program, meanwhile, are moving their property to a new Qualified Forest program, which offers less of a tax incentive, but allows them to restrict public access and erect structures. Businski expects the shift, which could potentially impact 225,000 of the CF program’s 2.2 million acres, likely won’t be noticed my most outdoorsmen.
“The industrial landowners are not moving to the QF program,” she said. “There isn’t going to be a mass exodus.”