Public land means land for all? Except when it does not.

Public land means land for all? Except when it does not.

Public land means land for all? Except when it does not.

The National Forest Service owns a lot of land. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, much of the area is supposedly for the public to use. Except for the fact that the public cannot drive on the land (no roads), cannot stay in the National Forests unless they are in a designated campground and forget about a family cabin that was there before the Feds were given the land. Here is one such story in Ontanogan county: Many local families around the Ontanogan river bought a land contract on the water in the 1950’s. Over the years, they built up the property, provided income to the nearby towns and villages.

This would be outrageous if this was retirees in Rosarito Beach, Mexico (where 99 year leases are normal). But the US government came in and told these families to get out and their buildings would be burned and or leveled. This is Ontonagon County in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Detroit Free Press told this really sad and unnecessary story here:

For years, much of the forest around the river was owned by the Upper Peninsula Power Company, which serves two-thirds of the population of the U.P. and which bought the land in the early 1950s to build dams for generating hydroelectric power.

Note (and this is super important): this area did not start out as a national forest.

Since the company had no real use for the land on either side of the river itself, UPPCO leased scattered 1-acre parcels to local residents who couldn’t afford to buy their own property so they could build small cabins near the water, where there was good hunting, great fishing and beautiful scenery.

Local Residents. Not people who lived out of the area but people with an investment in keeping the area nice.

People built structures in all shapes and sizes, and gave them names like Bar None Lodge, Doe Haven, Altoon’s Alehouse, Da Troll Camp and Fuzzy’s No Road Condo. Most were bare-bones log cabins without power or running water. But they were solid camps that lasted for decades.


“You think anybody’s going to come down here out of the blue? Where now we got a nice trail comin’ in where people can actually come down here and actually enjoy the forest? When this is gone they’ll have that road bermed off, gated off or whatever, and nobody will have access down here.”

The law of unintended consequences seems appropriate. Noting this is the Western UP and that income for the townspeople might be a nice thing. Right? So over the years, the families built roads and cabins and memories. In 1992, things changed:

The dams never materialized, so, in 1992, the company sold 34,000 acres to the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit that works to create public parks and protected lands. But before they did, the company offered the camp owners 25-year nonrenewable leases. The TPL then sold the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which made it part of the 993,000 acres of the Ottawa National Forest. Suddenly the camp owners were staying on federally owned public land. The government said it would honor the leases until they expired, but then the camp owners had to go.

The TPL sold the land and the lease was nonrenewable. Some may say the families should have known this was coming. But these are locals. This is their getaway spot. They worked on getting roads and these cabins have a rich family history. The feds can’t be that cruel, right?  Um Native American History says Nevermind. These folks tried to get the leases extended (note that Baja California, Mexico gives Gringos a 99 year land contract). They went to the state reps and congressmen but the feds refused to budge.

A resolution was passed last year in the state Senate calling on the agency to grant exemptions to the families, partly based on the roughly $45,000 in total taxes and fees that cash-strapped local municipalities stood to lose from all of the camp owners each year, and partly based on the 15,570 single-family cabins currently permitted on National Forest System lands throughout the country under the Recreation Residence Program. Why not, they argued, add these mere 155 people to that number?

The loss of taxes and fees mean services are cut. Although one has to wonder if the Feds want the whole county now? The Forest Service claims the following:

The Recreation Residence Program, which started in 1915 to entice people into America’s newly designated national forests, ended nearly 50 years ago, and while those cabins already on federal land at the time were grandfathered in, no new private structures have been allowed on federal property since the program ended. And having private property on public land simply goes against the concept of “public.”

What does that mean?

Using the logic the Forest Service did, can we just go stay at the Ranger Station whenever we want to because there is no private property on public land?   Nope.  What will happen?  The Forest Service wants all these cabins gone.  So the cabins will be burned and leveled. Never mind that access to the Ontanogan River will not be available to “the people” or that the area is poor and they lose one more source of income. Wikipedia says here

The median income for a household in the county was $34,786, and the median income for a family was $46,845. The per capita income for the county was $22,195. About 9.0% of families and 14.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 22.2% of those under age 18 and 6.7% of those age 65 or over.

The forest service could have done the right thing. They chose to keep the public off these lands and make the river a little more dangerous. And suddenly this “troll” (lives below the bridge) has one more reason people voted for Donald Trump: the lack of vision and excess of pride from the Forest Service got old fast. If there is one thing I would love to see happen it would be the feds stepping back and actually enacting a sane policy for national forests. Because these are supposed to be for the people but how can we enjoy inaccessible lands? Anyone in the Forest Service want to explain that?

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  • Skillyboo says:

    Not very often the government ‘does the right thing.’ I think with a new sheriff, so to speak, in charge when the news reaches his desk the right thing will be done.

  • GWB says:

    The TPL sold the land and the lease was nonrenewable. Some may say the families should have known this was coming.

    Well, yeah, they should have. They signed 25 year leases, 25 years ago. When you lease something, you do not own it.

    Now, if you want to argue about the federal gov’t owning that land, I’m with you. The gov’t needs to own a LOT less of America.

    But, as to what happened to these people, it’s called a CONTRACT. They had a lease, and that lease is up. Period. Calling for them to get continued access by forcing someone (even if that someone is the federal national gov’t) to honor a lease after it’s up is tantamount to denying equality under the law and property rights.

    • Gail Boer says:

      Sad but true. The thing that sticks in my throat is the area is undeveloped and there is no access to the river other than by the roads these families created. And the forest service owning lots of the region and land grabs. So much wrong by all involved parties.

    • Luke says:

      I’ve actually had some personal exposure to the Recreation Residence Program. It started out as 99-year renewable leases that the federal government marketed as equivalent to a property right. You paid a set amount, rather than a property tax that could fluctuate.
      Then Jimmy Carter voided those leases. He couldn’t by the terms of the contracts, but rules are for little people.
      They’re now 25 year terms that get “re-evaluated” every five, with arbitrary rate increases and ever changing dictates about what must be done with the property, all at the whim of bureaucrats who are mostly hostile to the very concept. “I’ve altered the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.” is the reality. There is no longer anything approaching a property right attached.
      When I was growing up, most families in the area had a cabin up in the mountains. Now I only know mine family the still does, and I really doubt they they’ll make it another ten years.

      • Gail Boer says:

        And no attempt is made to make the area accessible to the public. It is land hoarding. With good intentions but it is hoarding.

        • BikerDad says:

          With good intentions but it is hoarding.
          What “good intentions”? Seriously. I’m going to jump straight to breaking Godwin’s Law, do not pass go, do not collect $100 Deutschmarks, and point out that Hitler had “good intentions.” He believed that The Jews were a danger to and scourge on humanity. The general consensus today, at least in non-Islamic countries, is that Hitler’s assessment was wrong and his intentions were most certainly not “good.”

          So before blithely granting moral weight to the Fed’s actions (or anybody’s) by chalking ’em up to “good intentions”, perhaps we should assess what ARE their intentions and are said intentions “good” or not?

  • parker says:

    tHEP was a favorite summer vacatiob when the kids were little. Mild temperature, good fishing, and the majesty of Superior. Ontonagon (the village) offered small cabins for rent with a nice view of the lake. Good times.
    Back on topic, it all boils down to the feds hording too much acreage.

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