By Howard Meyerson
Grand Rapids, Mich — Hunters will have access to fewer privately owned acres of forest come 2015, the result of lands being transferred from the Michigan DNR Commercial Forest Program to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Qualified Forest Program. That loss of several thousand acres open to the public for hunting and fishing is less than was expected, according to state officials.
“We are looking at maybe 10,000 acres (out of 2.2 million acres of private, commercial forest land open to the pubic) going in one year’s time,” said Shirley Businski, commercial forest program leader for the DNR. “We anticipated about 50,000 acres, which is a significant amount, but (still) isn’t a mass exodus.”
Commercial forest owners are making the shift for several reasons, first and foremost because Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill in June this year that extends the deadline to Sept. 1, 2015 for transferring the land without financial penalty.
Businski said 1,750 acres was transferred in 2013 by 17 landowners after legislation was passed that rewrote the Qualified Forest program and shifted it to DARD with a June 2014 deadline for making a transfer. The extension signed by Snyder this year was approved to allow private landowners more time to develop forest plans that are required for enrollment in the Qualified Forest Program. As of press time, Businski had received 79 applications totaling 7,501 acres and 18 other applications for potential transfer totaling 1,746 acres. Most of the acreage, she said, is in the Upper Peninsula.
“The most common reason for the transfer is that the Qualified Forest Program doesn’t require public access – and allows for structures on the property like houses and hunting camps,” Businski said. “One reason there hasn’t been a mass exodus (from the CFP) is landowners face a significant increase in taxes once they move to the QF program.”
Michigan’s Commercial Forest Program was established in 1925 as a means to encourage landowners to hold onto lands that were cut for timber. Forty acres is the minimum parcel size allowed. It also has to be open to the public for hunting and fishing. Landowners are offered a tax break in exchange. They pay $50 a year in property tax on 40 acres, rather than be taxed on the full market value, which can run into the thousands of dollars.
“A lot of those people were not very gentle to the land, and there wasn’t a lot of incentive to keep it,” said Bill Botti, executive director for the Michigan Forest Association, a nonprofit that represents private forest owners and foresters. “That tax break made it attractive for industries to hold onto their land after they did the initial harvest.
“For a long time it was the only game in town. But the QF program was modified a year ago to make it more attractive to smaller landowners,” Botti said.
The QF program also has a tax incentive, but not as large. It exempts landowners from the school operating portion of the millage – a savings of between 35 and 40 percent, according to Businski. Landowners are able to post their property and keep the public off it. Activities, like making maple syrup, are allowed under QF, where they are not under the Commercial Forest Program.
“When land comes out of the CF program it is considered a new addition to the tax role, and new additions are taxed at current market value,” Businski said.
Russ Mason, DNR Wildlife chief, said the loss of access to those lands is not a big concern. A bigger issue is how private lands are managed for wildlife.
“Deer yards will be a bigger issue this fall,” Mason said. “The DNR manages about 20 percent of those yards, which means 80 percent belong to someone else. We can do all kinds of things on our 20 percent, but that won’t move the needle and make things better for deer. The key will be how to do it on other lands that doesn’t impinge on the landowner who enjoys it.”
Copyright 2014 Howard Meyerson
This story appears in Michigan Outdoor News