Public forest ownership has many implications
Michigan’s public forest ownership patterns have implications that are economic, social and ecological.
Public ownership of forest land offers promises not possible on privately owned land, especially in terms of the future. But those promises don’t come without debate and, sometimes, sacrifices. Management of these public forests comes with a complex of laws and regulations constructed by legislatures and public agencies and a history of litigation.
The national trends, which are also true in Michigan, suggest that private forest land will become increasingly parcelized. Property tax structures help to successfully drive forest land into increasingly smaller sub-divisions. This parcelization leads to fragmentation of the forest into bits and pieces, which has important negative environmental and economic implications.
Recent research in northern Wisconsin has documented this otherwise intuitive process. Over the next ten years, Michigan will likely see about 3.5 million acres change hands, with much of that to be parcelized, followed by forest fragmentation.
The principal promise of publically owned forest land is the continued presence of forest cover, especially relatively large blocks. These large blocks provide advantages, economically, environmentally and socio-culturally. Of course, management of these vast forest lands is often controversial. However, at least they remain as intact forest lands for future generations to enjoy and derive benefit.
Large forested blocks are easier to manage for timber production; we all use about the equivalent of a 2x4” each day. Larger areas provide management flexibility not available on smaller blocks, or at least not so easily. Additionally, most private forest owners don’t rank timber production very high on their list of reasons to own forest land. It is interesting to note the declining harvest trend, and tract size, on private forest lands from the western Upper Peninsula to the southern Lower Peninsula.
Large forested blocks provide enough space for wildlife species with wide ranges or those with preferences for interior habitats. Larger forested blocks may be better protected from certain exotic species. Large blocks tend to be less fragmented, coming closer to providing the potential quality and quantity of ecological services associated with forested areas. Management of large forest areas also sequesters huge volumes of carbon, which will moderate the effects of climate change. Unmanaged forests provide less carbon benefit.
Large forested blocks offer recreation opportunities not otherwise available. An extensive snowmobile system or loops of cross-country ski trails are much easier to accommodate across large ownership blocks. Public lands, along with corporate land enrolled in state timber property tax programs offer access for hunting, fishing and other traditional recreational use. Tourism, another vital rural Michigan industry, depends, in part, upon vast and extensive forests as an attraction.
Public ownership of forest lands requires funding, which is an issue within respective legislatures. Federal forests receive budgets from the U.S. Congress filtered through Washington, D.C. administrators. State ownership receives a small slice of income from general taxes, about $1.40 per person for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Most DNR funding comes from other sources, usually with specific strings attached. Both ownerships provide monetary compensation to local governments and schools, although the amounts and timing attract argument. Timber sale revenue is earmarked for specific uses and, those too, are prescribed by lawmakers.
Some would say forests are good investments for the public good. Some would argue otherwise.
Public forests, especially state and county owned forests, provide commercial timber that has huge positive roles in the rural economies, and ecologies, of the Upper Lake States. Across Michigan, state lands provide significant quantities of timber, but not usually as much per acre as corporate and family forest lands. Corporate lands come closest to achieving maximum sustainable timber production. The federal forests contribute significantly less. The ownership complexion of timber supply from different Michigan regions varies considerably.
Michigan has about 7.6 million acres (38 percent) of public forest, while Wisconsin has about 5.1 million acres (30 percent) and Minnesota has about 9.6 million acres (56 percent).
Michigan has about 19.3 million forest acres, covering roughly half the State. It’s one of the largest forests in the United States. About 2.6 million acres are in federal ownership (mostly Forest Service) and another 4.4 million in state/local government ownership (mostly state forests). The balance of Michigan forest is privately owned, with about 9.6 million acres in family ownership and almost 2.7 million acres in corporate hands.
In the long-run, Michigan’s human population will continue to increase. Demands for timber and recreation will grow. The pressure to develop private forest land will continue to increase. The goods and services from much of this private land will continue to decline. States with large public forest ownership will be somewhat insulated from these nationwide trends. They will be in a better position to accommodate the needs of future citizens.
Public forest ownership is an asset that will become more important as the decades roll by.
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