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Gov. Snyder likes public rec

January 21, 2011
By Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - Gov. Rick Snyder made his State of the State Address Wednesday night and overall, it was a positive message on how he plans to bring Michigan back as an economically viable place to live.

He outlined many areas he believes improvement through change can occur. He also complimented some of the ongoing programs as not only being successful, but essential in rural development.

One program in particular is the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF).

In 1976, the Michigan Legislature created the Kammer Recreational Land Trust Fund to provide a source of funding for the public acquisition of recreational lands. The source of the funds was the sale of oil, gas and mineral leases and royalties from their extraction on state lands.

Now approaching 35 years of existence, and now known as the MNRTF, use has expanded to state and local units of government being able to acquire land for public recreation and for protection of land for its environmental and scenic beauty. A limited amount of funds can also be used for the development of public outdoor recreation facilities.

In their last go around, the MNRTF Board funded some 117 projects that spanned across the state, a good many of which have been done in the Upper Peninsula. If you have a new barrier free fishing facility, a fish cleaning station or new series of boat launches and parking areas in your city, chances are good that the MNRTF had a hand in it.

Some municipal parks and other such facilities have been funded through the same vehicle. A big part of what has been done, deals with larger tracts of land that remain for public recreation, and is far less restricted than some other similar programs not partnered through the MNRTF.

We are in an era of change in who owns large tracts of forest land in the U.P.

Many of the timber producers or corporations that held massive parcels in ownership have been selling them off. Other entities have invested great sums of money, much of which was raised through donations, to acquire land under what is know as conservancies.

They incorporate public access but in a far more restrictive manner than general public land. Hunting, trapping and fishing can still be done with the exception, in some cases, of areas that will restrict access by motor vehicle that include street legal to off-road types.

Individuals that purchased lands formerly held and taxed through the Commercial Forest Act (CFA), are granted property tax discounts if the land is open for public recreation. The CFA does not require anything beyond foot access so some of those who previously enjoyed riding on two-track roads on CFA lands are now seeing gates blocking their way, unless they first pay the owner for motorized access.

Some see this as a manipulation of the intent of CFA, especially considering that many of the big timber producers had signed onto a memorandum of understanding with the State of Michigan and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), to follow the same rules that govern state forest lands.

There is a second dilemma that Governor Snyder faces in his quest to exploit the recreational opportunity through providing more public land payment in lieu of taxes (PILT).

The MDNR is responsible for administering PILT to those townships, counties and municipalities that have state land within their boundaries. The idea is to offset their inability to expand their tax base because the land is left for public recreation and cannot be developed. Unfortunately, the revenue used to pay PILT has historically come from the State's General Fund (GF). To date, approximately half of the annual GF appropriation to the MDNR has gone for PILT, which has further restricted non-funded user programs.

Public land is the obligation of all the citizens of Michigan and should not bear the cost for PILT on the backs of the license buying public.

Each time the MNRTF funds another land project, the obligation rises and with Governor Snyder and the Legislature facing a projected $1.8 billion deficit, they will be hard pressed to face the future obligations of PILT.

The issue isn't new, it just has not been dealt with by previous administrations or state lawmakers.

There is further concern over other public recreation activities that do not produce revenue through the sales of user permits and/or licenses. The funds that do generate money through user fees are constitutionally protected so the state cannot divert funds to cover non-funded interests.

It will take the entrepreneurship capabilities Governor Snyder is so high on to figure how to model sources of revenue for non-funded recreation projects, assure public land continues to be acquired for public recreation, deal with PILT and whether or not it can continue or be modified to reduce the immediate drain on the budget.

I admire our new Governor's direction, but as my father used to say when applying his comment on any tough issue: "He's gotta tough nut to crack on this one.


Tim Kobasic is outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet Saturday mornings



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