Are you looking for a piece of land with good deer hunting? Look no farther than Michigan's Commercial Forest Act lands!
By Richard P. Smith
I've taken my share of bucks while scrape hunting, but one I killed when employing that technique on a Nov. 21 morning one year was special.
I had found the series of scrapes as I still-hunted along a logging road in the Upper Peninsula's Alger County after firearms season opened. I hadn't hunted deer in that particular area before, so when the original stand site I selected didn't produce much action, I still-hunted to look for a more promising location in which to post while keeping my eyes open for whitetails.
I was excited when I found the series of scrapes. There were also some antler-rubbed trees in the vicinity that looked like they had been worked over by a mature buck. I found the scrape line on the afternoon of Nov. 17 and posted downwind from the buck sign until dark without seeing anything.
It was the morning of Nov. 19 before I got back to the spot, and a pair of new scrapes had been made since I was there last. I waited for a buck to visit the scrapes from daylight until 2 p.m. without being rewarded. Snow fell on and off during the day.
I returned the next morning and sat most of the day, except for a couple of hours of still-hunting during the afternoon. I saw a pine marten and a porcupine while sitting, and a bobcat sunning itself when I was walking. As I walked out of the woods that night, I came across three fresh deer tracks about a block north of where I had been posted. The prints looked like those of a doe, fawn and buck. That sign boosted my enthusiasm for the following day.
I was back in position about daylight on Nov. 21 and was pleased to see fresh tracks of a big buck and two smaller deer crisscrossing the scrape line. I hadn't been seated long when I heard what I thought was a deer moving behind me. I stood up and turned around to look for the source of the sound.
The author looks over a 6-point buck he shot on CFA land. Photo courtesy of Richard P. Smith
I eventually spotted a buck about 20 yards away that appeared to have an 8-point rack. When he put his head down to smell the ground his vision was blocked by a stump, so I hastily aimed for his shoulder and shot, dropping him instantly. The buck proved to be a 6-pointer instead of an 8-pointer because he didn't have any brow tines, but he was aged at 3 1/2 years old.
What made that deer special was where I killed him, not how I got him or how big he was. I shot the deer on private property, but I didn't have to ask for permission to hunt and I wasn't trespassing. The parcel I killed that buck on was part of the 2 million-plus acres of land in the Upper Peninsula that are enrolled under the Commercial Forest Act (CFA) - and all of that land is open to deer hunting. The CFA is a tax act that has been in effect since 1925. DNR service forester Steve Kalisz from Cadillac said the purpose of the act "is to provide the opportunity for long-term timber management on private forest land." A property tax reduction is the incentive for landowners to enroll in this type of management.
The public gets some benefits in exchange for the lower land taxes paid by property owners who take advantage of the CFA. One of the requirements under the act is that landowners enrolled in the program must allow "reasonable access" to their property by hunters and anglers. Kalisz said most CFA lands are located in the U.P., with a total of 2,186,454 acres found there. Another 40,491 acres of CFA land are located in the northern Lower Peninsula, and 5,482 acres are in southern Michigan.
The bulk of the CFA lands in the U.P. are owned by large corporations, such as Mead Westvaco and International Paper, who maintain commercial forests. They manage timber for eventual harvest to feed their mills and make paper products. They view the CFA as mutually beneficial to themselves and the public.
"One of the key things for the corporation is to have a tax rate that is low that allows us to grow timber over a long period of time," Mead Westvaco regional forest manager Brad Homeier said. "In regard to red pine trees, for instance, it takes 25 years before we even do a thinning. It takes jack pine trees on some of our properties 45 years to mature before we do any cutting. Having low taxes is the only way we can afford to do it. The CFA has served us and the public well."
Every county in the U.P. has CFA land. Mackinac has the lowest amount, at 21,500 aces. Marquette County has the most acres listed under the CFA, at 332,200. The fact that Marquette County is the largest county in the state has some bearing on its CFA acreage. Baraga County is next in line, with 247,600 acres of CFA land, and Ontonagon County has 229,700 acres in the program, followed by Iron (191,900), Houghton (181,400), Gogebic (175,400) and Alger (169,800). Also having over 100,000 acres of CFA land are Keweenaw (159,000), Menominee (121,175) and Luce (114,000).
Although the bulk of the CFA land in the U.P. is owned by large companies, some of it is also deeded to private individuals who decide to manage their property for timber production. The percentage of CFA land deeded to individuals goes up significantly in the Lower Peninsula. Thomas Stone from Indian River is one of the DNR foresters who administer the CFA in the L.P.
"I cover the 15 counties in the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula," he explained. "In this area, there are a few large blocks of CFA lands, but most are isolated 40s, 80s and 160s (in acreage). It is interesting to note that in the 15 counties that I administer, almost all the CFA lands are in counties west of Interstate 75. In the traditional 'Hunt Club' country east of I-75, six of the counties have no CFA lands. Crawford County only has 500 acres enrolled in the program, Oscoda County 220 acres and Alcona 160 acres."
The bulk of the counties in the L.P. that do not have CFA lands are on the east side of the peninsula, with most of them in the southern part of the state. However, all of the counties on the west side, from north to south, have some CFA properties. Counties in the northern L.P. that do not have any CFA holdings are Presque Isle, Alpena, Roscommon, Iosco, Arenac, Bay, Saginaw, Huron and Sanilac. Those from Region 3 that fall in the same category are Gratiot, Clinton, Shiawassee, Genesee, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, Jackson, Monroe and Branch.
Land under the CFA is currently taxed at $1.10 per acre, which is considerably less than what property owners who do not have their holdings enrolled would have to pay. Kalisz said the annual tax bill for 40 acres of CFA land anywhere in the state would be $44. Kalisz said the tax on U.P. forest land would otherwise be $5 to $6 per acre, which would be $200 to $240
for 40 acres. The savings under CFA would be substantial on thousands of acres.
The forester explained that the CFA tax rate was raised to $1.10 per acre from 38 cents in 1994. He added that the per-acre charge under the act may go up again in 2004 when the rate is reviewed. Besides the $1.10 per acre that landowners pay in taxes on CFA lands, the state pays an additional $1.20 per acre annually to each county where land is listed in the program. That payment is compensation for public hunting and fishing on these private lands.
How do you find out what property is available to deer hunting - or any other type of hunting for that matter - under the CFA?
Kalisz explained that all CFA lands are listed by county on the DNR Web site, at www.michigan.gov/dnr. Once on the site, click on "Forests, Land & Water" on the left side of the screen. From there, there are two ways to access CFA listings. The most direct way is to then look for the heading "Related Resources" on the lower right portion of the page. Under that heading, you will see "Commercial Forest Program Lands Listed." Click on that option and a map of the state will come up on the screen.
The second way to access this information is to refer to the heading "Michigan Forests" on the upper left side of your screen. "Commercial Forest Program" is the first option under that heading. Click on that and then scroll down the page to the highlighted wording "Commercial Forest Lands Listed." Click on that option.
Once you get to the colored state map, click on the county or counties you are interested in. The legal description of property under the CFA will come up. The computer you are using must have Adobe Acrobat in order to open these files. Files for counties that have a lot of CFA land, like many of those in the U.P., are large and can take awhile to open.
Plat books will help hunters locate parcels under CFA, according to Kalisz. In fact, it's recommended that you have a plat book for reference to verify locations of legal descriptions when looking them up on a computer.
If you don't have access to a computer or don't want to use one and prefer to have a hard copy of the legal descriptions of CFA lands, you can order them in booklet form from Lansing. Listings for each U.P. county are $6 each. A book covering all CFA land in the U.P. is $50. The entire CFA land listing for the Lower Peninsula is $16. An order form for these books can be found on the DNR Web site under the "Commercial Forest Program" option mentioned above. For non-computer users, a check or money order for the appropriate amount should be sent with a letter explaining what you want. They should be sent to: Cashier's Office, CFA Lands, DNR, P.O. Box 30451, Lansing, MI 48909-7951.
Keep in mind that lands may be withdrawn from CFA listing at any time and new properties are also added. Some corporations identify lands they feel they no longer need and sell them. The new owners sometimes decide to remove those parcels from the CFA. If in doubt about a tract that you thought was under CFA, check with the appropriate administrator about a change in status. They will be listed toward the end of this article. "As of this moment, I have 28 cases involving 3,600 acres that are (being pulled) out of CFA," said CFA forester Byron Sailor from Baraga.
If you find CFA lands that are posted against hunting and/or fishing, this should be reported to the nearest service forester. The only time hunter access can be restricted to CFA lands is when an active logging operation is under way. Landowners occasionally post their property against trespass even though it's enrolled in the CFA program, and they know they are not supposed to. However, hunters who want to reduce competition on CFA lands have been known to do it, too.
Sailor said some landowners have gotten creative about posting their property with signs that meet the guidelines under CFA at the same time they discourage people who want to hunt there. He said that a person with holdings on the west side of Lake Gogebic has put up large yellow signs with the word "NO" in large letters that is visible from a distance. Passing hunters often think the sign says, "NO TRESPASSING" and don't bother to approach for a closer look. The sign actually says, "NO cutting of trees . . . " along with other activities not provided for under CFA.
People who use CFA lands have caused problems for the owners, too.
"There does seem to be some misunderstanding about CFA lands," Thomas Stone from Indian River said. "The lands are still private lands in every way except the public has the privilege of access for hunting and fishing. That does not include leaving trash, vehicular use, camping, building blinds, trapping, picking mushrooms, hiking, or use at other times than hunting and fishing season unless the owner allows it. Most owners don't object as long as lands are respected."
Since property owners who have land enrolled under the CFA are only required to allow foot access, some CFA lands may be gated against vehicle access. Examples of additional activities that require landowner permission on CFA lands, according to Steve Kalisz, are target shooting, dragging roads and cutting trees for shooting lanes or to create trails for ORVs. Permanent blinds of any type and screw-in tree steps are illegal on CFA lands. Blinds made of natural materials or portables that are carried in and out on a daily basis are legal.
Brad Homeier with Mead Westvaco said they are still in the process of trying to eliminate permanent ground blinds and tree stands from their CFA lands even though they have been illegal for years. Company employees who come across illegal blinds leave orange 3x5 cards asking the hunters to remove them at the end of the season. If the blinds aren't removed, company staff removes them.
"The majority of hunters are good folks and respect our property," Homeier said, "but there are always a few bad apples. We always caution folks who use our land not to cut trails for 4-wheelers and shooting lanes. We appreciate the support of sporting groups that we have had. It's been a positive experience and we want to keep it that way."
"Most forest industry CFA landowners in the U.P. are fairly good to hunters," Steve Kalisz said, "as long as their roads aren't blocked or damaged and timber management isn't adversely affected. Private non-industrial CFA owners generally are more likely to restrict hunting-related activities. So ask permission before engaging in a related activity.
"Truly landlocked lands (parcels surrounded by private property that are off limits to hunters) are not eligible for CFA," Kalisz continued. "However, lands can become landlocked through ownership changes after they become CFA lands and we may not know about it. We need your help to identify parcels that might fit this definition. Hunters and fishermen bring many CFA violations to my attention. With only five service foresters, we need your help to ensure compliance and maintain hunter access."
If you have any questions about CFA lands in the Cadillac District, Kalisz can be reached at (231) 775-9727, ext
ension 6043; his e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
DNR foresters who administer the CFA in the U.P. are Byron Sailor at the Baraga office (906-353-6651/sailorb@Michigan.gov) and Ernie Houghton at the Gladstone office (email@example.com).
Tom Stone handles the northeastern Lower Peninsula out of the Indian River office (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Southern Michigan CFA questions should be directed to David Neumann at the Lansing office (email@example.com).
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