Delta County Board responds to easement concerns

ESCANABA — The Delta County Board of Commissioners this week approved a response to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which has indicated modifications to an easement crossing former Delta Conservation District CEO Rory Mattson’s property could violate the terms of a grant used to purchase the land.

“I stand by the letter wholeheartedly, and will proudly sign it. There’s been scuttlebutt in the community that we violated and we’re — we’re not going to have to pay it back because we didn’t violate anything. And that falls on political lines,” said Commission Chair Dave Moyle.

The issue of the easement goes back to the creation of the county forest in 2017. When the roughly 1,400 acres was purchased, the county received a grant from the Trust Fund, which, like all grants issued by the DNR through the fund, came with certain stipulations about public use of the land.

Sometime not long after the forest was purchased, Mattson purchased parcels adjoining the forest — both as an individual and jointly with former District Board Chair Jack Herrick and Gary Stanek. An easement was approved allowing access to the forest over a portion of the land Mattson owned.

In August of 2023, Mattson came before the commission with a request to modify the easement, which he said erroneously allowed more types of access to the forest than were part of the initial easement proposal. At his request, the commission modified the easement to restrict access to only timber harvesting and fire suppression.

The amendment was signed the same night it was approved, Aug. 15, 2023, and on Aug. 17, 2023, the county received word from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund stating a change to the easement “would almost certainly represent a breach of the project agreement.” Despite the Trust Fund’s warning, the change was notarized and filed with the county’s register of deeds on Aug. 21, 2023.

In total, the documents approved Tuesday to be sent to the MNRTF include a five-page letter chronicling the forest; two pages explaining a wildlife habitation project conducted between the Delta County Conservation ­District, U.P. Whitetails, and Wildlife Unlimited; two maps; and 33 photos. Most of the photos are of roads, gates, or damage to roads and gates.

“We believe that the best way to answer your request is to provide a detailed summary as to everything that the county has done on the forest and the reason why (this may be more than you requested, but this summary can act as a document for future reference to prove that the county followed all requirements for the MNRTF acquisition grant for any future complaints),” the letter read in part.

The documents approved by the commission only reference Mattson once, as a negotiator of the purchase of the forest. None of the easements referenced in the letter are noted as crossing Mattson’s land, nor are there any references to modifications being made to any easements.

The letter does address a number of other concerns raised by residents. Some of the topics touched on in the report include the use of gates to restrict motor vehicle activity — which the county says was done to limit seasonal damage to roads, to ensure quiet areas for non-motorized uses, and for safety reasons — and plans to modify a wildlife pond that has been noted as potentially dangerous due to its steep sides. The document also highlights public access points to the property.

“The county is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. It’s addressing the questions that the DNR had and I think we went above and beyond,” said Moyle.

The county is in possession of complaints sent to the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the MNRTF, about the property. The county submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the complaints, but the names associated with the complaints were redacted by the DNR.

“Redacting their names is ridiculous. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t even answer these,” said Commissioner Bob Barron.

Commissioner Steve Viau supported the response being sent to the MNRTF, however he wanted to include the names of those responsible for the document’s creation. At his request, the commission voted unanimously to approve the document with the names of its authors.

The response was created by Moyle and Delta County Administrator Ashleigh Young, using information complied by Commissioner Bob Petersen, Mattson, and Allen Ettenhoffer of U.P. Whitetails.


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