Pilgrim River agreement allows for public access

Photo provided by Bill Leder The Pilgrim river flows through a snowy landscape.

HOUGHTON — After years of work and planning, the Pilgrim River Watershed project has come to a close, preserving around 1,300 acres of land for public use.

The project was started by local residents and the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited (CCCTU) to preserve the area for public access.

On Monday the Keweenaw Land Trust and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officially announced the project’s completion.

The close proximity to Houghton and Hancock was a key reason behind the push to settle it for continued public use.

“There are some great places in the Keweenaw, but you don’t have to get in your car and drive for 30 or 40 minutes,” said Bill Leder president of the CCCTU. “Just being able to be close to the river means a lot to many people.”

“It’s really gratifying to see the way the community came together on it and support that,” said Leder, “to know that this opportunity will be there for future generations.”

The land was originally enrolled in Michigan’s Commercial Forest program where timber was harvested but landowners allowed seasonal public access for hunting, fishing and trapping in exchange for lower taxes. Under the program, the landowner could withdraw and sell the land at any time.

Under the new conservation easements, the land will remain open to the public for non-motorized recreation — hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing.

Conservation easements entail a purchase of development rights, which are consistent regardless of who owns the land. The DNR put $550,000 in grant money from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and $170,000 in contributions from the Pilgrim River Watershed Project towards the purchase approved by the landowners.

The owners in question are the Hovel family of Wisconsin. The Hovels will continue selective and sustainable logging on the land.

“The easement is about 25 pages long, and it specifies that timber harvests can take place, but they have to comply with sustainable practices,” Leder said. “You can’t harvest any timber within a certain distance of the river, and there’s a lot of other things pertaining to erosion control…thinning trees rather than just going in and clear-cutting.”

“Our goal has been to own property for the values that it gives not only for our family but for the public,” Joe Hovel said.

By selling the development rights “which we had no interest in exercising,” Hovel said the family is able to keep the area open to the public, log the land selectively and provide value to the area.

Hovel sees these values as overlapping, impacting social, economic and environmental quality.

He also intends to let some areas continue as old growth without logging and keep “legacy trees” in place.

“If a tree has more value to the environment then it has economic value, why would you take it?” Hovel asked.

The family has a history of encouraging conservation easements for its land, often using the easement funds to purchase more land for conservation and selective logging.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for the community,” Hovel said. “In my opinion when it comes to land conservation, the forest legacy program is the shining star of all potential forest land conservation programs in the United States. I’m convinced of that, and I think that’s why I’m so happy that we’re able to accomplish that (easement) with that big chunk of that property.”