When most of the land in the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula was listed for sale
last year -- with a $43 million price tag -- organizations that valued public access to the property's forests, wetlands and trails hustled to come up with the money needed to keep that access alive.
The Nature Conservancy
has set minds at ease with its recent announcement that it had successfully brokered a deal to protect more than 31,000 acres known as the Keweenaw Heartlands.
The nonprofit Conservancy closed on the acquisition of 22,700 acres from the seller, The Rohatyn Group, and has entered into a purchase agreement for an additional 8,900-acres scheduled to close by the end of the calendar year.
“This purchase ensures everyone can enjoy and appreciate these iconic lands and waters forever and assures that sustainable management of its lush forests continues,” the announcement read.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was formed from one-billion-year-old lava flows and shaped by glacial ice and the waves of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. The peninsula is one of the most unfragmented forested and freshwater areas of the central United States.
Copper Harbor, Lac la Belle and Eagle Harbor are nearest to the purchased land; 6,000 acres are located in Eagle Harbor Township and the balance of the acreage is located in Grant Township.
Once best known for its deposits of copper ore, “the Keweenaw Peninsula is at the heart of one of the most beautiful and culturally significant landscapes in Michigan, rich with forests, wildlife, cascading rivers, lakes, and wetlands,” says Helen Taylor, state director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.
The peninsula's forests are habitat for gray wolf, bobcat, black bear, pine marten and migratory songbirds. The area is also a vital rest stop for migrating raptors.
The Nature Conservancy calls the peninsula a global priority for both biodiversity and climate resiliency, and says its purchase represented “an opportunity to protect an extraordinary region for both nature and people.”
Why it matters
It’s the least populated county in Michigan, with only 2,050 residents. The last copper mines closed decades ago. But tourism has been a growing economic driver
in Keweenaw County, and in the entire Upper Peninsula. In recent years, more than half of the county’s employment
has been connected to tourism.
Maintaining public access to trails to hike and streams to fish is vitally important to encouraging visitors. Though there have been no specific development threats, Rich Bowman, policy director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, says
the threat of ownership that could disrupt the trail system or public access was a major concern in the local community and of the many recreational users.
Brad Barnett, executive director of the Keweenaw Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the group is very thankful to the efforts of The Nature Conservancy for leading the effort to secure the land for continued public use.
“We do not have good numbers on specifically what visitors do when they visit the Keweenaw,” Barnett says. “However, in 2019, we estimated that about 233,000 people visited the area. In 2021, we estimate that more than 300,000 visitors came to the Keweenaw. Much of that was driven by individuals seeking outdoor recreation activities.
“We don’t have the capacity to project forward the economic impact of this acquisition,” Barnett says. “However, it does help preserve an incredible swath of wilderness that draws visitors to the region each year and ensuring access to the public is vital to the long-term health of the region’s economy.”
The Nature Conservancy has also secured funding to support a community visioning process, led by Rural Economic Success (RES) Associates’ John Molinaro. To date, RES has conducted nearly 60 one-on-one interviews with local leaders, conducted public meetings engaging more than 300 residents and nearly 2,000 people completed surveys to understand what they value most about this land.
“After The Nature Conservancy and local leaders have an opportunity to collaborate on the long-term vision and management plans for the area,” Barnett says, “Visit Keweenaw will have a better idea of the acquisition’s future impact on the economy.”
Protected development going forward
With the completion of the acquisition by year end, the Conservancy will acquire the land’s mineral rights, trails and historical structures. The land will remain open to the public under the Michigan Commercial Forest Program and on community tax rolls.
Sustainable forestry on the site is part of the vision for its management, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is also heartened by the purchase.
“Outdoor recreation and the forest products industry are major economic drivers for the State of Michigan, including the Keweenaw Peninsula, and (The Nature Conservancy’s) purchase of this land assures it will remain open and accessible to the public to support nature-based outdoor recreation and sustainable forestry,” says Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger. “Much of the Keweenaw Heartlands property adjoins lands currently owned and managed by the DNR and we look forward to working with The Conservancy and the community to be partners in the management and use of public lands in the Keweenaw.”
Bowman says the control of the mineral rights means that the conservancy and future public owners control if and where leasing of mineral rights for exploration or recovery can occur on these properties.
What people are saying
“I want to thank The Nature Conservancy for engaging with community members early in this process,” said Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners Chair Don Piche. “We have a long tradition in Keweenaw County of enjoying the outdoors and losing access to these lands would have really hurt. By listening to our needs and concerns, TNC has helped us achieve a major milestone — securing the lands. ”
The dark green shows newly protected land; the light green shows existing protected land.
“The Keweenaw Peninsula is part of the historic lands of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, which our families have used for hunting, fishing, gathering and ceremonial purposes for generations,” says Brigette LaPointe-Dunham, CEO of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. “I want to thank TNC for leading a culturally appropriate plan that protects this sacred land so it can be enjoyed and appreciated for the next seven generations.”
More recent history is protected as well. Bowman says there are a number of known copper mining and processing sites on the property as well as some historic logging camps, attracting visitors who come to learn about the history of both the copper industry since European settlement as well as indigenous mining that has occurred in this area since the retreat of the glaciers after the last ice age. Many visit now abandoned sites. The protection of these lands assures that those artifacts are not disturbed, removed or otherwise destroyed.