Help ensure parks’ future

Guest Editorial
Not all that long ago Michigan officials were worried about the future of the state’s outstanding state park system, once one of the best in the nation.

Attendance was down and, more worrying, so was funding. The Legislature was cutting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ budget, and the DNR in turn was cutting back on upkeep and maintenance. Some parks were being shut down for portions of the year and some camping areas closed to keep down costs.

It was a vicious circle: As areas were closed off or not maintained, fewer campers and day visitors showed up, giving the Legislature further reason to reduce funding.

But a couple years ago Michigan adopted a system used successfully in other states under which vehicle owners were asked to voluntarily increase their license plate fee by $10, which went directly to maintain the state park system. Drivers got a pass that let them into any state park, the parks got more money and a more reliable source of funding. It has so far been a major success.

Now the park system is doing some outreach and constituent building to help create a larger base of users and give those users skills to keep them coming back.

The DNR is launching Recreation 101, a program to offer beginner instruction in a number of outdoor activities at parks around the state, from kayaking, windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding to archery, disc golf, fishing and orienteering. Local outfitters will volunteer their expertise and gear to get newcomers going.

It’s a great idea that should help the state build a bigger user base for the parks as well as get some Michigan residents off the couch and outside getting exercise many of us so desperately need (the state is ranked fifth in the nation in obesity).

There are critics who rightly point out that the state must respect its other park priorities, including eradicating invasive species and maintaining trails. But doing required maintenance and offering recreational opportunities aren’t mutually exclusive efforts; the state can, and should, do both.

Classes and the park entrance are free for residents with a recreation passport. The two-year-old passport program allows entry onto any state-owned land. Instead of the normal $24 a year park pass, people can sign up for a $10 recreation passport when they renew their car registration.

Luring people to our beautiful parks and teaching them new ways to enjoy them is the best way to ensure a bright future for the park system; a large and powerful constituency is the best defense against further funding cuts.