Public land managers will be more likely to implement balanced and effective policies when they recognize and respect the views of people living and working in the areas affected by their policy prescriptions. The result is good for both humans and public lands: The health and well-being of the public lands is improved, and people who use the land enjoy better lives and receive a stronger economic benefit.
In “Conflict to Collaboration: Collaborative Management of Federal Lands in Michigan,” the Mackinac Center’s Environmental Policy Initiative discussed the value of using a mix of scientific and local historical, social and economic factors to help set up public lands policies. The report describes examples, from Michigan and across the nation, of command-and-control management causing unrest and resistance in communities that have been directly harmed by public land managers’ decisions. It also describes how communities more rapidly accept the plans of managers who recognize their concerns and value their input. The Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Project, which is setting land management policies in the Hiawatha National Forest, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, provides an excellent example of this situation.
Nahma Township is a community in the south-central portion of the UP. The area was initially settled in the mid-1800s as a logging community, and its people have a tie to the land surrounding their homes that long predates the 1931 formation of the Hiawatha National Forest, which surrounds the township. But changes in government policies and timber markets slowed demand for forest products from the area, causing the town’s lumber mill to close in 1951. That closure forced the town to switch its focus to outdoor recreation on public lands as a key income source. The township’s fortunes depend on access to the lands, through services provided to visitors who come to enjoy the natural beauty of the region.
For that reason, a draft version of the Camp Cooks Integrated Resource Management Plan, released by the U.S. Forest Service in August 2016, was of particular interest to the citizens of Nahma Township. In September of that year, Forest Service staffers held a public meeting and presented the plan. The agency proposed closing most of the roads and trails used by residents and visitors for off-road vehicles, claiming they damaged wetlands, streams and rivers.
Residents believed the Forest Service had released a completed plan and was holding the public meeting to force them to accept the road and trail closures. Given the heavy impacts the closures would have had on the area’s outdoor recreation-based economy, public response at the meeting was strongly negative. But throughout that meeting, embattled Forest Service officials protested that they were honestly seeking input, saying that no final decisions had been made.
In response, local businesses and residents took the Forest Service up on its claim and formed the Camp Cooks Task Force to
guide the development of the draft plan. The task force took part in further public meetings and submitted comments recommending that the Forest Service reconsider the closure of key access roads. Because of its input, Forest Service officials agreed to remove the most actively used trails from the list of recommended closures.
In this instance, citizens and federal officials were able to work together to, in the words of local media, “detail a viable plan to create a restricted multi-use designated trail on and along the Nahma Grade, the former railroad long since abandoned and offered as part of the Michigan Rails-to-Trails Program.”
The Camp Cooks Task Force demonstrates that rural residents — the people most heavily affected by changes in land management policies — understand the importance of intelligent mixed-use management. For that reason, government managers have a duty to seek their input. When they do, their plans do a far better job of meeting the needs of those local people and improving the overall management of public lands.