Win-Win: Easement agreement allows public access, uses along Pilgrim River

HOUGHTON — An effort to ensure permanent easements on two tracts of land on the Pilgrim River is nearing completion.

The Portage Township and Houghton County boards approved letters this week in support of the easement, which covers two parcels totaling 1,103 acres with 3.5 miles of waterfront. Both parcels are in Portage Township; the larger is off of Boundary Road, while the other is off Onkalos Corner Road.

Bill Leder, president of Copper Country Trout Unlimited, said the idea of the easement dates back to 2003, when CCTU and and several other local conservation and recreation organizations began pursuing the idea.

At Tuesday’s Houghton County Board meeting, Leder said the easements would ensure the land remains a working forest with public access for recreational activities.

“These activities will include not only the ones that are included under commercial forest, which is hunting, fishing and trapping, but also expanded formally to include birdwatching and other wildlife viewing, mushroom picking, berry picking, cross-country skiing, hiking, those types of activities,” Leder said.

The easement received a $550,000 grant through the U.S. Forest Service, one of only two Michigan projects in that funding cycle. That money is generated through royalties on oil and gas leases on the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and Gulf Coast, Leder said.

Private fundraising for the local match began in 2009, raising $275,000 from more than 550 donations.

The money is used to compensate the owners, the Hovel family, for the decreased property value from restrictions on the land and public use. Leder said the property is appraised by a certified appraised through the Department of Natural Resources, then again by an independent appraiser.

Historically, the land had been owned by mining companies, which allowed hunting and fishing use, Leder said. More recently, it has been enrolled as commercial forest land, opening it for non-motorized hunting and fishing activity in exchange for a property tax rate.

Evan McDonald, director of the Keweenaw Land Trust, said Tuesday this is the first local example of a working forest easement.

“This is meant to be a win-win situation, so the landowner gets to manage the forestry, they get to harvest trees and make money from that, but the public gets this permanent, secured access for recreation, and the land has to be managed according to a plan that protects the watershed and the wildlife,” he said.

Leder said Thursday the Hovels have worked closely with the project since the beginning.

“They’re in the sustainable forestry business, but they are very conservation-oriented,” he said. “They did not have to allow construction of trails until the easement existed, but they were pleased to be able to do that so there would be public access during this period we were still working on the project,” he said.

The easement agreement is expected to be complete by the end of September, Leder said.