Section 1 - Overview

Department mission

The DNR is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations.

The department strives to protect resources, ensure sustainable recreation use and enjoyment, enable strong natural resources-based economies, improve and build strong relationships and partnerships, and foster effective business practices and good governance.

Why public lands matter

Mountain biking on a scenic forest trail. A family beach trip on a summer day. Heading to the woods to take part in Michigan's time-honored hunting tradition. Camping by the lake. Bird watching in a wetland area. Exploring the state's rich history among towering white pines, limestone cliffs and Great Lakes shorelines.

If you enjoy these activities, or the countless other outdoor opportunities woven into the fabric of our lives as Michiganders, chances are you have experienced the power of public lands.

The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for taking care of the approximately 4.6 million acres of public lands that are owned by Michigan residents. Those lands include state forests, game and wildlife areas, state parks, trails and other DNR-managed public lands. Public lands also exist at the federal, state and local level, but this strategy focuses exclusively on DNR-managed public lands. These are the "public lands" referred to throughout this plan. Management of public lands is not accomplished by the department alone. It is achieved through collaboration with members of the public, many stakeholders, conservation partners, and the various industries - timber, oil and gas, sand, gravel and more - that rely on the sustainably managed natural resources Michigan's public lands offer.

This strategy provides a framework for the conservation and stewardship of DNR-managed public lands to ensure their best use for the benefit of Michigan residents, visitors and the state's natural and cultural resources. It provides goals, strategies and measurable objectives to guide us in:

  • Protecting and preserving Michigan's natural and cultural resources.
  • Providing spaces for quality outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Performing responsible natural resource management.

When lands are well taken care of, they strengthen the state in several ways. For example, public lands support Michigan's environmental well-being with healthy forests protecting and promoting water quality. Additionally, caring for vegetation protects against erosion. They provide residents with ample outdoor recreation opportunities - often very close to home - to be physically active, clear away mental stress and discover new pursuits. These public lands also play a key role in Michigan's economic health by enhancing local and regional economies.

Careful and thoughtful oversight of DNR-managed public lands has led Michigan to not only be a great place to live and work, but to be regarded as one of America's favorite travel destinations - no matter the time of year. Whether there's snow on our trails, or our forests are ablaze with fall color, residents and tourists of all abilities get to have incredible experiences on public lands through diverse and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities.

The long-term efforts resulting from this plan will foster cultural and natural resources appreciation, help build a healthy environment, provide spaces for people to get outdoors, protect and preserve Michigan's woods and waters, and create a strong land-based economy. The benefits of such management of public lands will extend to Michigan residents, visitors and future generations.

Economic value of public lands

DNR-managed public lands play a significant role in supporting many aspects of Michigan's economy:

  • Michigan's state parks, which draw 28 million visitors each year, act as a catalyst to attract out-of-state tourists and provide a focal point for activities that drive local economies.
  • Home to many tourist attractions - known for both their unique natural beauty and rich history - DNR-managed public lands are the backbone of Michigan's $20 billion-plus tourism industry.
  • Harbors and boating access sites on DNR-managed public lands also provide access to the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams for boating, which has an economic impact of more than $7 billion a year in Michigan.
  • Michigan's state game and wildlife areas, state forests and state parks offer abundant places to hunt, fish and watch wildlife, all activities that help drive the state's economy. Hunting contributes almost $9 billion and fishing contributes more than $2 billion annually.
  • State forest land supplies about 20% of the timber consumed by the forest products industry statewide. The industry contributes $20.2 billion and more than 91,000 jobs to the economy annually.
  • Approximately 599,000 acres of DNR-managed mineral rights are leased for mineral exploration and extraction. The mineral extraction industry contributes over $20 million and 5,000 jobs to the Michigan economy annually.

Sources: Appendix E

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Overarching principles

In addition to the core functions of the DNR, there are standards, which are equally important and serve as the foundation for department operations. These "overarching principles" reflect department ideals, values and priorities, and guide decision making. The principles are commitments to the public and guide the way the DNR cares for the state's natural and cultural resources, including DNR-managed public lands.

Accountability/good governance

The DNR is open, transparent and accountable to the people of Michigan. Public input is a primary driver for informed decision making within the department. The DNR offers a range of opportunities - both in person and via technology - for people who are interested in learning more about and providing feedback about its work. More than 20 resident-based boards, committees, councils and commissions hold their public meetings in open, inclusive forums and provide content in a range of accessible formats following meetings. Public meetings aren't the only time the DNR accepts feedback or comments; people are welcome to call, email or stop by customer service centers when they need assistance. When it comes to conducting business, whether through timber sales, mineral, oil and gas auctions, or land acquisition, easements and exchanges, the DNR engages in open and competitive processes to ensure fair transactions. The department is increasingly using technology tools such as interactive maps, open-data portals and online meeting platforms to provide and enhance the public's understanding and participation in decision making processes. Through public meetings, open houses, social media, electronic news bulletins, its website and more, the department remains transparent and provides updates to help people understand how and why decisions are made about DNR-managed public lands.

Diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility

The DNR is committed to the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in administering and managing Michigan's public lands. The state's population is diverse, dynamic and ever-changing, and the lands and facilities the department takes care of must reflect the different experiences, geography and communities it serves.

Diversity is represented by lands and facilities that are geographically dispersed across the state to provide opportunities close to where people live and work. Public lands should offer a range of outdoor experiences on both developed recreation facilities and wild, natural spaces.

Equity involves offering reasonable opportunities to Michigan residents and visitors to experience public lands and pursue recreation. The DNR strives to remove barriers that limit the use and enjoyment of public lands and provide accessibility where possible.

Inclusion is the department's commitment to better understand the way people of all abilities experience the outdoors and provide opportunities that make people feel welcome on DNR-managed public lands.

Tied to the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, the DNR remains committed to providing accessible year-round recreation for people with disabilities. Through adaptive equipment, track chairs, accessible blinds and more, the department is focused on solutions to make visits to facilities enjoyable and meaningful for all. 

Public safety

The DNR is dedicated to protecting and serving the people, places, and natural and historical resources of Michigan. The safety of residents enjoying the outdoors is of utmost importance; a priority accomplished through effective law enforcement and public outreach and education. Michigan is home to a diverse population with varying levels of experience and comfort in the outdoors, and the department is committed to ensuring that everyone feels safe, secure and welcome on DNR-managed public lands. These lands are used for many purposes - from dog-walking and nature photography to fishing, hunting and riding ORVs. Michigan's extensive public land base ensures that there's room for everyone to safely and responsibly enjoy their favorite outdoor activities.

Education

Michigan's DNR-managed public lands are bursting with education opportunities for children and adults alike. The department is committed to creating and providing engaging and relevant education initiatives to help people understand why the work it does is important, how resources are managed and invite them to play a role in helping to take care of those resources. Visitor centers, fish hatcheries, customer service centers, historical sites and the Outdoor Adventure Center in downtown Detroit are just some DNR locations where people can go to learn more. In addition to traditional education opportunities, the department has brought its education programs into homes with virtual programming. Outdoor Skills Academy classes teach people how to fish for steelhead, manage their property for wildlife habitat, hunt turkey and more, which in turn helps the DNR's mission to recruit and retain new users. These engaging methods are helping people learn about management and protection of Michigan's natural and cultural resources while teaching about the importance of conservation. DNR-managed public lands are places for families, school groups, hunters, anglers and everyday explorers to learn and enjoy.

Public health

Spending time outdoors has been shown to benefit overall health and well-being. Hundreds of health studies have reinforced the fact that exposure to nature and time reduces stress, boosts immunities, enhances memory, helps with chronic pain, stimulates creativity and more. With all these benefits, it's easy to make the case that an investment in public lands is a smart investment in public health. DNR-managed public lands provide residents with close-to-home avenues to be physically active and to mentally recharge. The DNR, through its Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, is committed to supporting the health and well-being of Michigan's residents by working with industry partners from many sectors to anticipate emerging trends, create effective policy and elevate outdoor recreation opportunities and resources across Michigan.

Partnerships

It wouldn't be possible for the DNR alone to accomplish its mission of conserving, protecting and managing Michigan's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. That's why strong relationships with diverse groups and organizations are key to expanding opportunities to further the department mission and values. Success depends on seeking different perspectives, adding new voices to the conversation surrounding conservation, and honoring long-held traditions as the DNR adapts.

Such partnerships are based on open communication, trust, similar values and goals, and mutual respect. The DNR is committed to working with partners at the international, tribal (see Appendix D), federal, state and local levels - keeping an eye toward potential relationships with new entities. Partnerships with nongovernmental organizations are especially critical to the work of protecting and managing the state's natural resources. Finally, partnerships with the public - ranging from community scientists who identify invasive species, to the "eyes in the field" who report natural resources violations and concerns as well as positive things like wildlife observations to assist with species surveys - are invaluable in furthering the work of the DNR.

Promotion

The DNR actively promotes activities, opportunities and programs associated with public land resources and management throughout the state. Recruiting, retaining and reactivating interest in traditional outdoor activities such as fishing and hunting remain a priority and a focus of department outreach and marketing efforts. Adapting to changing interests and looking for novel ways to communicate with a diverse user base, including the media, are critical to ensuring all Michiganders can take full advantage of DNR-managed public lands. The department leverages technology and is committed to seeking new opportunities for engagement so that anyone - all ages, abilities and walks of life - can connect with Michigan's outdoors. This will be achieved through a variety of outlets, including in-person, educational tools and social media. The DNR also will seek to maintain Michigan's nationwide reputation as a four-season travel destination through travel and tourism campaigns.  

Maintenance, stewardship and restoration

DNR-managed public lands, infrastructure and facilities require routine attention and long-term care and maintenance. As one primary example, the department maintains ecological integrity on public lands by fighting invasive species, using prescribed fire effectively and restoring degraded lands. While many DNR-managed public lands programs promote acquiring lands, enhancing facilities and providing new recreation opportunities, there also exists a core commitment to caring for existing lands and amenities through attentive maintenance, stewardship and restoration.

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Why a land strategy?

A comprehensive land strategy guides the DNR in its stewardship of the 4.6 million acres of public lands owned by the people of Michigan. That includes 3.9 million acres of state forests, 357,000 acres of state parks and recreation areas and 364,000 acres of state game and wildlife areas.

Using the overarching principles, which reflect the department's mission, values and priorities as a guide, this strategy is built around several components:

  • Tools for public land administration, including dedicated project boundaries^, land transaction processes and types of land ownership rights.
  • Strategic approach to land acquisitions.
  • High-level goals, specific strategies and measurable objectives to track progress.
  • Strategic initiatives.
  • Resulting outcomes.

Whether the DNR is planning timber management on the state forest, ensuring access to statewide outdoor recreation opportunities or working with a city planner on a proposed urban pathway, keeping these components in mind will help accomplish the strategy's three main purposes:

  1. Demonstrating how responsible management of the state's large public land base is important to the protection of our natural and cultural resources^, which further serves to benefit:
    1. The health and well-being of Michigan residents.
    2. Michigan residents' quality of life.
    3. Michiganders' heritage and identity.
  2. Setting priorities and guiding actions related to the lands held in public trust and administered by the DNR.
  3. Complying with Public Act 240 of 2018 (see Appendix B), which requires the DNR to:
    1. Provide an updated strategy to the Legislature for consideration and approval by July 1, 2021.
    2. Provide a report on progress toward the goals defined in the 2013 Managed Public Land Strategy (see Appendix C).
    3. Detail proposed changes to department goals, including the rationale for the changes.
    4. Engage and collaborate with local units of government.

^ Denotes words and phrases defined in Appendix A.

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History of DNR-managed public lands in Michigan

Strategic land ownership has always been a priority for the people of Michigan. From the time Michigan became a state, its residents have been the owners of substantial acres of public land, held in trust by state government. Over the course of several decades, the state implemented a deliberative review of land ownership, making determinations about what lands should remain in a public trust and which lands would be more appropriate in private ownership. As a result, these lands, managed by the new Department of Conservation (precursor to the DNR), formed the foundation for the current-day state parks and recreation areas, boating access sites, historic sites, game and wildlife areas and state forests.

Excerpt from "The Land Nobody Wanted," published by Michigan State College in 1945

In 1921 state forests totaled 113,800 acres, state-owned game refuges were limited to a single one, and the system of State Parks was rudimentary. … By 1930 the area in state ownership was 1,700,000 acres. The state forests had been increased to 12, covering 600,000 acres. Game refuges numbered seven, embracing 53,900 acres and the complementary program of public hunting grounds to go with the sanctuaries was just getting under way. … in 1938, with tax sales resumed, the great impoundment of delinquency broke and over two million more acres came to the Conservation Department, just about doubling its holdings. In the meantime, another factor had entered the picture. Not only was the state retaining the bulk of its land, but the state was actually buying acres to add to its public domain. Game license funds had been set aside by statute to purchase choice parcels of game cover needed to augment the large tracts of leaner stuff on hand, and these parcels - principally deer yards - totaled thousands of acres annually. Later, a part of each fishing license fee was earmarked, again by the legislature, for the purchase of water frontage so the angling public might have better access to and more undisputed rights on lakes and streams. The federal Wildlife Restoration Act provides funds raised by an excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, some of which may be used for land acquisition, and Michigan annually avails itself of this means, of obtaining title to acreage needed to provide more public hunting grounds.

(See appendix F)

Tax-reversion cycle

Early state directives supported the sale of public land for settlement and development. Many of these lands went through several cycles of reverting to the state for nonpayment of taxes as the land was cleared of timber and subsequent attempts at agriculture failed. From the 1890s through the 1930s, the state underwent a series of economic downturns that caused these tax reversions - over 116 million acres (the land reverted multiple times).

During this period, unsustainable harvesting of forests was widespread, wildlife was being exploited and agriculture efforts were failing.

Conserving resources

The exploitation of land and natural resources triggered the rise of the conservation movement, and focus shifted to wise allocation of land, rather than sale for short-term gain.

Various commissions, including Public Lands and Fisheries (1873), Forestry (1899) and Parks (1919), were created to manage natural resources and stop the tax-reversion cycle.

These commissions were subsequently eliminated and their functions merged into the Department of Conservation, created in 1921 under the direction of a new Conservation Commission.

One of the first rulings of the Conservation Commission was that state lands bordering the Great Lakes, or any inland lake, were not to be sold but were to be held for the "enjoyment of the people."

Throughout its tenure, the Department of Conservation set forth a strategy for its Game and Forestry divisions to work together to manage public land only with concurrence from the other division. This approach was similar to the current concept of co-management, a nationally recognized model that continues to be the cornerstone of DNR public land management.

Reviewing lands for value

In 1922, the Michigan Land Economic Survey was created to review the lands in northern Michigan and determine their value for agriculture or whether they were more suitable for recreation, other public uses or should be sold. As a result of this review, by 1950, over 1.3 million acres were sold, and 130,000 acres were turned over to local governments. The remaining acres were added to state forests, wildlife areas and state parks.

Looking at land ownership

Michigan's public land policy went through an extensive review in 1984, by the Task Force on Public Lands Policy, which found that the state needed to consolidate its ownership of land and "did not find a need for major changes to land management practices and philosophies."

In 1996, the Senate Select Committee on Public Land Ownership, Purchase and Management also conducted an extensive study of the DNR's land acquisition policy as well as other state land-holding agencies. The committee proposed seven "principle changes" in the state's land acquisition policy, including increasing flexibility in state programs to allow for shifts in land policy, adopting new attitudes and incentives to work with the private sector, and reaffirming the Legislature's role as the chief conservator of the state's natural assets.

In 2003, the Ownership Strategy was initiated to review the DNR land ownership pattern, evaluate DNR-managed public lands from a natural resources perspective and dispose of those parcels that did not contribute to the overall mission of the DNR. The purpose of the review was to continue the ongoing effort to consolidate state land ownership for a variety of economic, outdoor recreation and other natural resources benefits. In addition, consolidation of the state land base resulted in land management efficiencies by reducing trespass issues and addressing shooting safety zone encroachments and the need to monitor and survey public/private boundary lines.

Public Act 240 of 2012 required the creation of a strategic plan for public land ownership. The resulting strategy - originally created in 2013, adopted by the Legislature in 2018 and updated as detailed in this document - provides a framework for the conservation and ownership of public lands to ensure their best use for the benefit of Michigan residents, visitors and the state's natural and cultural resources.

Where we are today

The DNR manages public lands for multiple uses and objectives, using principles of ecosystem management, technologies such as geographic information systems and adaptive management techniques to sustain the diversity and productivity of Michigan's natural resources. This updated strategic plan focuses on overarching principles, goals, strategies and measurable objectives from department-wide, regional and statewide perspectives. As a complement to the land strategy, each resource-managing division within the DNR has developed separate, more tactical management plans that specifically guide the management of state parks and recreation areas, state game and wildlife areas, state forests and state fisheries (see Appendix G).

This updated land strategy seeks to align and leverage our divisional and departmentwide strategies and priorities - including making Michigan's outdoors more accessible to individuals of all abilities, combating invasive species, providing for natural resource protection and outdoor recreation opportunities - to set a comprehensive, coherent direction for the DNR to effectively manage the lands held in the public's trust for current and future generations.

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