When he was growing up in Keweenaw County, Eagle Harbor Township Supervisor Rich Probst Jr. remembers taking the natural beauty that surrounded him for granted.
With a population of 2,156 as of the 2010 census, Keweenaw County is Michigan's least populous county and is defined by sprawling, diverse wilderness. The county includes pristine Lake Superior shoreline, forests, lakes, and hills, ideal for a broad range of outdoor activities.
However, the places where Probst and his friends would go snowmobiling as kids was private, not public, land. For many years, Lake Superior Land Company (LSLC), a subsidiary of International Paper, owned nearly 40% of Keweenaw County. While that land was used for logging, it was also managed for long-term sustainability and residents used it as public land – a common practice in much of the Upper Peninsula.
Brockway Mountain Drive West Bluff Scenic View. Photo by Doug Coombe.
That's changed in recent years though, as timber companies like International Paper have undergone what a 2007 Michigan Technological University report described as "essentially total divestiture of their UP holdings." Reflecting trends in urban sprawl, the new investors aren't so interested in the timber as they are in the long-term real estate investment the properties represent. They're also more likely to sell off the properties they buy in fragments rather than maintaining an expansive plot.
"It's not somebody that's actively mining. They're not actively logging. They're using that property and hoping to make interest or hoping to make a profit on its sale at some point," Probst says. "So for us and our economy up here, which is recreation and tourism, getting it in the public's hands really is pretty important."
Over the past two decades, county stakeholders have become increasingly aware of that importance and have successfully campaigned to purchase large parcels for public use – often with the help of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF). MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands.
Hunters Point Park. Photo by Doug Coombe.
MNRTF's signature investment in Keweenaw County, representing over half of the $21 million total the fund has granted to the county, is the acquisition of over 12,000 acres, including 12 miles of Lake Superior shoreline, at the eastern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula (affectionately known simply as "the tip"). The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) purchased the parcel from International Paper in 2006, using a total of $12.5 million from two MNRTF grants in 2001 and 2002.
Gina Nicholas, president and chairperson of the Keweenaw Community Forest Company and chairperson of the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, says county residents "cherish" the tip for its "spectacular shoreline" and "mosaic of habitats."
"Going back to my grandmother's older brothers, it's been the mecca to go to the tip to go rockhounding, go hunting, pick berries, go camping," she says. "It's been this place for the community forever, and I think it's also been this place for tourists to come because it's rugged and beautiful and it's got all this coastline."
However, not all county residents understood the importance of purchasing the property for public use. Former Keweenaw County Commissioner Don Keith says many residents felt they could "do what we want, when we want, anywhere we want" with the permission of the landowners.
Surfing on Bete Grise. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"I realized that that was not going to happen forever," Keith says. "Times were changing and the opportunities to acquire land, and also the price of acquiring that land, would probably never be [the same.]"
The land acquisition process engaged a diverse group of stakeholders from across the county. Upon learning that LSLC was motivated to sell the property, the DNR assembled an advisory committee to draw up a plan for the property's acquisition and management. Keith helped recruit members of the committee, which included representatives of the Michigan Nature Association, the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region, the business community, the timber industry, and more. A crucial player in the project was The Nature Conservancy, which fronted the purchase price of the land until the MNRTF grant funds came through.
Helen Taylor, Michigan state director for The Nature Conservancy, says the committee meetings "brought together unexpected constituents to talk about something that they all wanted, but for different reasons."
"It was people whose focus was snowmobilers and ATV riders, but then also environmentalists and nature [enthusiasts] and passive recreational activity [enthusiasts]," she says. "All these different folks came together for many different stakeholder meetings to talk about how to have a management plan that met somewhere in the middle."
Stakeholders agree that the project couldn't have happened without MNRTF, especially given Keweenaw County's small population.
"The tax base isn't really there to support a lot of purchases of property for public benefit," says James Tercha, an attorney who has worked on many public land acquisitions in the county, including the tip project.
While the tip project is MNRTF's biggest project by far in Keweenaw County, the fund has also played a crucial role in acquiring and developing other beloved natural areas for public use. One of those is a 320-acre parcel at the summit of Brockway Mountain, acquired with funds from a $498,800 MNRTF grant awarded in 2011. The plot lies along scenic nine-mile Brockway Mountain Drive, a popular tourist destination known for its impressive views of Lake Superior.
Cyclists on Brockway Mountain Drive. Photo by Doug Coombe.
The Brockway property had previously been owned by a private individual who was growing old and wanted to see the area preserved and open to the public. Like the tip project, Nicholas says, the process of acquiring the land involved a "very broad-based community effort." The Copper Country Audubon Society, Keweenaw Land Trust, Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy, and Eagle Harbor Township all helped raise matching funds for the MNRTF grant.
"Everybody loves Brockway Mountain, so I think it was a pretty easy thing to get people to throw money at," Probst says.
Another popular MNRTF acquisition project is Hunter's Point Park in Grant Township. The 9.4-acre park itself was acquired in 2004 with a $562,900 MNRTF grant, and an adjacent 122-acre parcel was acquired with two $720,000 grants in 2007 and 2008. Together, the two properties offer 5,600 feet of Lake Superior shoreline just north of Copper Harbor Marina. Former Grant Township Supervisor Richard Powers, who spearheaded fundraising efforts for the acquisitions, says the property was popular even when it was owned by AuGlaize, LLC.
"[People] would walk out there from Copper Harbor Marina, walk around the west end of the harbor, and enjoy themselves," he says. "And of course we had a couple locals who grew up there and that had been their playground."
The initial acquisition was prompted by AuGlaize's plans to develop the site. Powers says he didn't consider that a truly imminent threat, but he still wanted to ensure the public could access the site in perpetuity. As with Brockway Mountain, the community coalesced around the effort. Over 1,000 donors from 33 states contributed a total of over $200,000 to cover grant match and closing costs for the initial acquisition. But Powers says MNRTF was essential to the project.
Bete Grise Preserve. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"If it wasn't for the Trust Fund, it wouldn't have happened," he says.
MNRTF's impact in Keweenaw County is evident not only in sheer acres preserved, but in economic benefit. Tourism and outdoor recreation have long been staples of the county's economy, and new public lands have been a boon to both. Tercha and Nicholas both note a recent influx of younger visitors, bringing new outdoor activities with them.
"You see the emergence of a whole bunch of new businesses to build trails, to provide bikes, to provide kayaks, to sponsor birding festivals in May, to just do some new things that are not the traditional summer camping or hunting or traditional fishing," Nicholas says. "They're these sort of emerging recreation activities."
Nicholas and other county stakeholders want to keep that sense of momentum going by continuing to acquire land for public use. Last year she, Probst, and others founded the Keweenaw Outdoor Recreation Coalition, which aims to unite numerous conservation-minded groups in pursuing new acquisition projects. Nicholas says the group is particularly interested in purchasing "the next 10,000 to 20,000 acres" south and west of the tip acquisition and hopes to pursue MNRTF funding to do so.
"If we don't have the land, we don't have tourism," she says. "Let's get the land and have this trail system mecca and have places for everybody who wants to do every kind of outdoor recreation."
Tercha emphasizes that the motivations for acquiring public lands in the county go far beyond economic benefits.
"Everybody just assumes in Keweenaw County that this property will always be open and a playground for everybody as it has forever, since living memory and beyond," he says. "But if it comes a time when the economics for cutting the timber don't make sense anymore, the big landowners ... will start selling the property off to somebody who'll fragment it, and our way of life, so to speak, will disappear."
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.