UP (Michigan's Upper Peninsula) land sale may put public access in peril
(Note: Language deception covers this article like candles on the birthday cake of an octogenarian. Private property would appear to be viewed as a giant playground and is referred to as "publicly accessible," "a place of wide-open freedom to roam and dream," "corporate land" -- twice -- and everything BUT private land. Government owned lands are apologized for having restricted access -- "... a number of state parks and wilderness areas ... don't enjoy much access..."  -- but private land that does not bear the substantial property rights restriction of "conservation easements" is woefully described as having "...resulted in gated roads and "No Trespassing" signs." Well, it is private land, and not something to be steamrollered at will by the public. What happened to all the pie-in-the-sky promises about land that, if purchased by government, would become "for future generations"? Ah, it is land to which access is often denied -- might have a "threatened" or "endangered" plant, insect or animal, doncha know...)
September 23, 2005
By Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., Staff Writer mcdiarmid@freepress.com or 248-351-3295
The Detroit Free Press
Detroit, Michigan
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@freepress.com
More than 1.1 million acres of publicly accessible Upper Peninsula forest is for sale -- a potential threat to hiking, berry picking, snowmobiling and off-road vehicle use on land cherished by generations of tourists and Yoopers.
The deals involve an area 12 times larger than the city of Detroit, dwarfing the 2002 sale of 390,000 acres of UP timberland.
That deal spurred an unprecedented alliance between the state and the Nature Conservancy to buy a $58-million conservation easement that now protects most of that acreage from development and ensures public access.


The current real estate will be sold in two blocks -- more than 650,000 acres owned by Escanaba Timber (formerly MeadWestvaco) that went on the market in August and 452,000 acres that are quietly being shopped this month by International Paper.


New owners could reverse longstanding informal arrangements that allow snowmobile access, hiking, off-road vehicles, and in some cases camping on the lands. Such changes would erode years of unfettered access to large private land tracts, changing the unique aura of the UP as a place of wide-open freedom to roam and dream.


"All of this corporate land has kind of been our backyard," said Charles Eshbach, 62, of Houghton, who has hunted, trapped, snowshoed and fished on the lands up for sale. "There were no rules or signs, and no way to distinguish when you cross from my 40" acres "to corporate land. This is part of chipping away at that."


The Nature Conservancy and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm have begun discussing an effort to protect part of the 1.1 million acres, said Garret Johnson, chief conservation officer for the conservancy's Michigan chapter.


A Granholm spokeswoman said the governor has spoken directly with at least one of the timber companies, urging them to consider a conservation easement similar to the pact that protects 271,000 acres of land sold to Forestland Group LLC in 2002. That agreement pays Forestland to sign away rights to development and ensures public access to the land for fishing, hunting, hiking and snowmobiling. The easement stays with the acreage when it is sold.


"She would like the Forestland Group agreement to serve as a guide as to how we would handle these," said Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd.


But that pact was expensive -- $58 million that still is being raised, including at least $16 million in state funding.

Making more financial commitments may not be wise for a governor struggling to keep the state's economy above water.


"We're in the midst of a budget crisis," said Diane Katz, director of science, environment and technology for the Mackinac Center, a Midland-based free-market think tank.

"We already have a number of state parks and wilderness areas that don't enjoy much access ... so I would hope to see private conservancies get together rather than the default being the government."


Time to organize such an effort may be short, and the state must be a key player in order to convince companies to play ball, environmentalists said.


"We've referred to it as a crisis, quite frankly," Johnson said Wednesday. "We have a couple of months in Michigan to get our act together if we want to protect it."


New owners almost certainly will keep most of the land in timber production for the near future, because a condition of the sales will be an agreement to supply nearby mills with timber for at least several years. That will keep the land in the state's Commercial Forest program, which reduces land taxes in exchange for access by hunters and anglers, but makes no provision for other recreational pursuits.


New owners also are free to sell off prime chunks for construction of vacation homes, resorts and as hunting land for private citizens.


"There likely will be some development along some of the rivers and lakes ... some high value recreational property will be sold," said Mark Sherman, a forest manager for Escanaba Timber.


Katz said such selective development would help bolster local economies.


But others fear such fragmentation would erode a longstanding tradition of vast fence-free tracts of woodlands.


"They can unload this land to the highest bidder. The buyer sells land along the lakes and rivers for development, and beats the bejesus out of the timber," said Marvin Roberson, forest policy specialist with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. "The places where you put your canoe in ... you may come up and find that it's now a 3,000-square-foot vacation home with a Ford Navigator in the driveway."


Eshbach said the 2002 sale resulted in gated roads and "No Trespassing" signs on some land not covered by the conservation easement. Other smaller sales have resulted in similar walling off of woodlands.


"That's raised the hair on a lot of Yoopers' necks," he said. "You can't get to your favorite berry patch anymore, or your favorite fishing hole. The access is being taken way from us a little bit at a time. We've been like spoiled unruly teenagers who do whatever we want.


"It's hard for us to have someone come in and stop that."

Graphic: Timber land for sale http://www.freep.com/pdf/2005/09/23/timberland.pdf (this is a Must-See graphic)
Sales are about the green -- cash, that is http://www.freep.com/news/mich/timber-bar123e_20050923.htm
Copyright 2005, The Detroit Free Press.
Additional related reading:
Sales are about the green -- cash, that is
(Note: "Whoever's got the cash gets the goods" -- unless such as the Nature Conservancy can get land donated or at a far reduced price by promising to "preserve America's 'Last Great Places.'" Until, of course, a sweet deal to develop or otherwise use part of those lands to fatten the coffers of the "preserving" NGO.)
September 23, 2005
By Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., Staff Writer mcdiarmid@freepress.com or 248-351-3295
The Detroit Free Press
Detroit, Michigan
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@freepress.com
Why are the two of the state's largest private landowners selling?
Facing a new global economy, industry consolidation and pressure from shareholders to get short-term results, private forest land is increasingly a marketable commodity.
The days when timber companies owned both the production mills and the trees that feed them are disappearing.


Between 2000 and 2004, 23 million of the 70 million acres owned by the nation's private forest industry changed hands at least once.

Many were purchased by real estate investment trusts or timberland investment management organizations -- whose objective often is to resell the property to snag short-term profit.


"The goal often is to grow the timber and flip it in 10 years, to get money from the appreciation of the land and timber," said Mark Sherman, a forest manager for Escanaba Timber.


But the deals typically include supply agreements with mills owned by the seller, virtually ensuring the new owners will keep much of the land in timber production for the immediate future, said Brad Homeier, chief operating officer for Escanaba Timber.


Adding to the incentive to sell, mergers of mega-companies often create debt that can be paid down with sales of assets like timber.


Such deals leave the timberland increasingly in the control of managers in other states or nations.

For example, Escanaba Timber LLC, which has 650,000 acres of UP land on the market, is owned by Cerberus Capital Management LP in New York City.


"Whoever's got the cash gets the goods," said Marvin Roberson, forest policy specialist with the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter.

Copyright 2005, The Detroit Free Press.