Tradition of Public Access to UP Forests Threatened by Ownership Changes

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

The Upper Peninsula’s unique identity could be changing as commercial forest ownership changes signal a break with the past, according to a report released by university researchers and conservation groups in Michigan.

The region’s constants – wide open spaces accessible to the public, sustainably managed forests and an economic foundation of forest industries and tourism – need better incentives to remain in place for future generations, the report concludes.

For more than a century, timber companies and forest products firms have been key owners of large-scale tracts of UP land. They actively managed their lands and enrolled them in a program that gives them tax incentives for allowing public access to their forests and waters.

Coming decades could see changes in that pattern as real estate trusts and timber investment management organizations continue to acquire land. Those owners’ goals often are substantially different – focusing on investment returns rather than supplying timber to mills. They still produce timber, but seek other sources of income, such as the recent sale of a conservation easement on over 248,000 acres of The Forestland Group’s UP holdings. Another income source will likely be accelerated sales of some lands for development.

All told, more than 1 million acres of land changed hands in the UP during 2005 and 2006 alone – more than ten times the amount of land in the city of Detroit.

In states where this large-scale shift has already occurred, people have seen restrictions on public access; physical fragmentation of the landscape by roads, buildings and other infrastructure; reductions in wildlife habitat; and a loss of public access to high-value natural features like lakeshores and streams.

“Our research shows that the sprawling forest tracts that have long been part of the UP’s allure are already getting smaller and more fragmented,” said Robert Froese, of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University. “Lands along Great Lakes shoreline and along streams and rivers are increasingly owned by small private interests and therefore less accessible to the public.”

Additionally, the forest products industry and tourism economy that is the backbone of the UP economy may change without better education and forward-looking public policy adaptations, the report concludes.

“More than half of employee compensation in the UP’s manufacturing sector comes directly from forest products industries, so any substantial change in that industry will have massive implications for employment patterns,” said Larry Leefers of the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University. “This analysis shows that both forest industry and tourism are critical to the UP, and that policies need to support those industries. Otherwise, the UP and Michigan will suffer a loss.”

The report offers 22 recommendations, grouped under four strategies, to maintain sustainable ownership and management of the UP’s forests while encouraging economic, recreational and conservation opportunities.

The recommendations range from policy initiatives and education at the local and state levels to economic stimuli for forest products and industries.

“No one recommendation is a cure-all,” said Brad Garmon, land programs director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “But this report is a starting point for discussing steps that might help protect what is most cherished about the Upper Peninsula while encouraging economic development, protecting natural areas and maintaining public access.”

Mark Lorenzo of the National Wildlife Federation said the report’s recommendations are key to keeping a vibrant UP: “The report makes clear that the changes underway in the Upper Peninsula pose a challenge to Michigan’s outdoor heritage,” said Lorenzo. “The good news is that state leaders have the opportunity to act before it is too late by embracing solutions that will allow citizens to hunt, hike and recreate in Michigan now and for generations to come.”

The report, “Large-tract Forestland Ownership Change: Land Use, Conservation and Prosperity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” is a cooperative venture of Michigan Technological University, Michigan State University, the Michigan Environmental Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation & Development Council. The project was funded by People and Land, a program of the Kellogg Foundation administered by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.

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More information is available on the project website at

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.