Aunique program currently in development will eventually ensure that more than 32,000 acres in the Keweenaw Peninsula will be available forever for the public’s recreational pursuits.

That was the basic message delivered by Julia Petersen recently. Speaking in May to members of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association at its annual conference in Baraga, Petersen, Keweenaw Peninsula Project Manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), called the work on the Keweenaw Heartlands Project “a new endeavor” in Michigan for the group. She added that the hope is in time “to return the land to the state when possible.”

But that’s not what makes the project special. What does, though, is the plan for how the area will eventually be managed.

In the interim, that’s a task TNC has undertaken.

Months before actually purchasing the land in 2022, TNC worked extensively with local communities to make sure it understood what the people hoped to achieve. This meant conducting more than 60 one-on-one interviews with community leaders, holding several public meetings and analyzing over 1,850 survey responses.

Petersen said that before TNC purchased the land for $39.1 million, most of it was held privately by “various industrial owners who did not live in the region.” The concern was that the land would be sold to many private entities and perhaps even parceled into smaller chunks whose owners would close off access to the public. Just as important, land management would be equally fragmented, and the area’s forests, fauna, “extensive human history” could go untended.

In addition to the area’s billion-year-old lava flows and other geological attractions, Petersen noted that the peninsula is intriguing for its blend of habitats—over 12—including bogs, wet meadows and fens, volcanic bedrock glades, and cliffs.

“It’s got boreal forests, which are usually found north of us. And oak forests, which are usually found south,” she said. “They are here because of an interesting combination of the Keweenaw’s weather and climate.”

She also added that “attention is being paid to spots with known post-contact history or agricultural locations.”

The public input efforts identified four priorities for the management of the project to focus on:

• Protect and maintain natural and cultural features, including important ecosystems, habitats and corridors for wildlife

• Ensure a healthy, working forest

• Keep the land open and accessible to the public

• Maintain revenues from the lands to support critical local services

Through a collaboration among area residents, the Michigan DNR and TNC, a 90-page “Blueprint for the Keweenaw Heartlands” (bit.ly/keweenaw-blueprint) outlines these values and principles for Heartland’s governance and management with a goal of maintaining a healthy, intact forest.

“This includes exploring potential forest protection projects and partnerships that could continue to provide for local sustainable timber and recreational economies,” the TNC advises.

Here’s where the project achieves its unique status.

First, about 10,000 acres situated near Fort Wilkins Historic State Park just beyond Copper Harbor will be managed by the DNR.

Under the plan, TNC and community advisory committees are working toward creating a new “model of community-based governance” that will oversee the remaining two-thirds of the footprint (approximately 22,000 acres) in perpetuity. The way Petersen told it, since such a plan hasn’t been tried before in Michigan, organizers are being painstakingly cautious in laying the foundation for this body.
Some of the concerns they are finalizing are how to create a governing body for a huge chunk of land that encompasses several independent localities; how to keep politics out of management decisions; how to include tribal representatives; how to handle commercial forestry aspects prudently.

“We need to be responsible but maintain progress,” Petersen said.

Finally, TNC sees the potential for this arrangement to become a template for future work. It says, “The solutions we develop together here could be shared with other communities pursuing a resilient, nature-based future, across the Great Lakes and beyond.