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Forest Ownership Makes A Difference
Article #139, December 2008
By Bill Cook

     The ownership of a forest has a lot to do with how that forest will be managed (or not) and even if it will still be a forest into the future. Understanding ownerships, both public and private, can help everyone better appreciate the resource.

     There are surveys, media stories, organizations, and plenty of experience among foresters that suggest that the differences of ownership are not well recognized by many people. Most people view the forest as either a playground or a place to build a house. In fact, the forest has wide range benefits to both owners and society, most of which are either undervalued or simply are not thought about a whole lot.

     The values of the owner determine what happens on that forest. This idea is fairly straight-forward for privately-held woodland resources. A hunting camp or corporate forest likely have different, but fairly clear goals. Identification of values and subsequent management alternatives are not so easy for public lands, and not all public lands have the same "ownership". This is important.

     Public lands are not all managed for the same values and they have different sets of regulations. About 38 percent, or about 7.5 million acres, of Michigan's forest is owned by one public agency or another. Permitted activities vary from one public ownership to another. Users would be wiser to understand these differences.

     The National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, is a federal agency. National Park units are "owned" by every citizen of the country. The Park Service manages about 630,000 acres in Michigan. Dominant "values" include recreation, research, and preservation. Also within the Department of the Interior, are the National Wildlife Refuges, with over 100,000 acres. The largest unit is the Seney Refuge in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

     The U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, is another federal agency. National Forests cover about three million acres in Michigan. Dominant "values" include a much broader range of public benefits, including timber harvest.
The Forest Service is much different than the Park Service, and the debates and politics extend back more than a hundred years.

     The State of Michigan is the largest single landowner in Michigan, with over four million acres. Most of this is in the State Forest System, with other land managed by different agency units, such as the State Parks. Land in the State Forest system is actively managed for a wide range of benefits. Timber harvest is a major tool used to meet many of the social, economic, and environmental goals. Other state land management agencies have different sets of "values" than those of the State Forests, somewhat like the differences between the Forest Service and the National Parks.

     Unlike Wisconsin and Minnesota, Michigan does not have many County owned forests. The largest units are in Gogebic and Marquette County. The "values" for those forests are values expressed by the citizens of the respective counties.

     Corporations, mostly investment and real estate companies, own about two million acres in Michigan. Most of that forest lies in the Upper Peninsula. Formerly, forest industry owned most of those lands. These forests are managed by professional foresters and the dominant values are returns to investors and timber supply contracts with forest industry, all within the bounds of sustainable forest management. Most of these lands are also open to the public for recreation under Michigan's Commercial Forest Program, and the policies of the individual company.

     The rest of Michigan's forest, about nine million acres or about 46 percent, is owned by individuals, partnerships, hunting associations, and other private, non-corporate entities. The "values" for each of these nearly half-million parcels are as diverse as one might expect. Private interests guide the management, or non-management, of each parcel. Yet, a range of "public values" flow from these lands, such as wildlife habitat, water quality, scenic value, etc. In many ways, these private lands are critical to the future of Michigan's economy and environmental health.

     Trends within various ownerships have been researched to varying degrees. Certain findings are alarming to some; others are surprised by positive news. However, few argue that forests are an important part of Michigan's future well-being. Something we would be mistaken to take for granted.

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Bill Cook is an MSU Extension forester providing educational programming for the entire Upper Peninsula. His office is located at the MSU Upper Peninsula Tree Improvement Center near Escanaba. The Center is the headquarters for three MSU Forestry properties in the U.P., with a combined area of about 8,000 acres. He can be reached at cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.

Prepared by Bill Cook, Forester/Biologist, Michigan State University Extension, 6005 J Road, Escanaba, MI  49829
906-786-1575 (voice),  906-786-9370 (fax),  e-mail:  cookwi@msu.edu

Use / reprinting of these articles is encouraged. Please notify Bill Cook.
By-line should read "Bill Cook, MSU Extension" Please use the article trailer whenever possible.

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