OPINION: Maintaining Michigan summers in the parks is crucial

Article originally published in the Grand Haven Tribune. You can find the original article at the Grand Haven Tribune website. By Jon Gorter and Nate Slauer, WMEAC eco-journalism interns. Note: This is an opinion piece; the opinions expressed in it are related to the authors’ personal experience, and are not necessarily those of West Michigan Environmental Action Council. 

After the Fourth of July, Summer is officially in full swing. The weather is warm and people are flocking to Michigan’s great state parks and recreation areas.

Michigan state parks rank among the best in the country. Maintaining these spaces is a crucial task—but finding funding can prove more difficult than many of us realize.

Michigan boasts an impressive number of designated public recreational spaces: 102 state park and recreation areas covering 350,000 acres, 13,500 campsites in 142 campgrounds, and over 850 miles of trails — but they need work. According to the 2013-17 Michigan Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP), a five-year strategic plan that assesses park needs, issues and recreational trends, “Many of the facilities at (Michigan’s) recreation areas were built in the second half of the 20th century and are in need of significant upgrades and rehabilitation to improve their quality and adapt to changing user needs and demands, and some need upgrades just to make them safer for use.”

As of 2015, hundreds of renovation and upgrade projects representing more than $300 million in capital improvement projects for the Michigan state park system remain backlogged. These important infrastructure projects include roads and bridges, facilities, utilities, accessibility, and a myriad recreational structures.

The surf washes the beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

The surf washes the beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

A significant amount of state park funding is generated from user fees and non-taxpayer funds, such as the popular Recreation Passport and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The Michigan state park system now brings in around $20 million annually through its Residential Passport program. Michigan residents can buy an $11 annual license plate pass at their Secretary of State’s office to gain access to all state parks.

The Michigan Natural Resource Trust Fund receives revenue from oil and gas activity on state lands. The state Constitution requires some of this money to be contributed to the State Parks Endowment Fund. This major source of funding for state parks fluctuates considerably depending on oil and gas prices.

Conservation of natural resources is also intimately tied to state park maintenance and restoration. A smaller source of park funding comes from the development of Michigan’s previously mentioned SCORP. As an incentive encouraging states to develop a SCORP, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund offers states various levels of funding based on their SCORP results.

For example, in developing Michigan’s SCORP, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) incorporated the protection of one of Michigan’s most threatened ecosystems: wetlands. Wetlands function as crucial, natural water storage and purification sites; their presence across the Midwest has been in dramatic decline. Between 1998 and 2005, a Ducks Unlimited study found that, in Michigan alone, over 3,600 acres of wetlands have been lost.

In addition to the physical preservation of state land and water, there is a strong argument to be made that Michigan must restore and update state recreation areas to maintain cultural knowledge and support for environmental protection. If crumbling, outdated park infrastructure deters visitors and residents from supporting the parks, a negative feedback loop could begin to decrease support for the state park system and conservation as a whole.

Wetlands, like this one at Wilderness State Park in Emmett County, are critical natural assets that need preservation

Wetlands, like this one at Wilderness State Park in Emmet County, are critical natural assets that need preservation

With its current funding sources, the DNR has covered the immediate costs of park operation and maintenance. However, prioritizing short-term expenses has often meant delaying long-term capital improvement projects. The longer that these projects are put on hold, the more expensive they become.

Investing in the maintenance of our parks and recreational areas pays off. Our parks foster a huge tourism industry, Michigan’s third-largest economic engine behind only agriculture and manufacturing. World-class trout streams, the world’s largest freshwater dune system, 3,288 miles of coastline, scenic forests and endless miles of hiking, snowmobiling and equestrian trails all draw visitors from around the world. With more than 22 million visitors annually, Michigan ranks in the top quarter of all U.S. states as a destination.

If Michigan hopes to maintain its great state parks and recreation areas, and remain at the forefront of tourism, it must continue the work of revitalization. We need to cut down long-overdue restoration projects and conserve Michigan’s natural spaces. And through this revitalization, we can join Tim Allen in proudly proclaiming our beautiful state’s status as “Pure Michigan.”

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