Michigan State Parks Need $341M in Repairs
Michigan's state parks system is beautiful, rustic — and in need of help.
While parks continue to offer camping, beaches, hiking and solitude, they desperately need $341 million in repairs, state officials say.
A pair of Detroit Free Press reporters spent a month visiting 22 of Michigan's 100 state parks, and found many urgently need upgrades to roads, showers, water and electrical systems. Empty entrance booths punctuate the need for more staff.
Though there are problem areas, they're not disintegrating. Not at all.
And unlike some states that shut down parks this year because of budget woes, all of Michigan's remain open despite six years of funding troubles.
Other good signs? After years of falling, the number of overnight stays at campgrounds rose by 3,800 from 2008 to 2009. State park campgrounds are 89% booked for the Fourth of July weekend. And a new source of revenue for the parks begins Oct. 1, with an optional fee tied to license plate tabs.
The parks are at the precipice, said Chuck Nelson, associate professor of outdoor recreation at Michigan State University. If the new funding plan works, "in year two, there will be more significant dollars" to fix the parks, he said. But it won't be overnight. "It's not like you can say in one year we can snap our fingers and it happens."
Parks are filled with happy campers
Unlike the Velveteen Rabbit, state parks are alive even when nobody's giving them love.
On a Thursday in June, Lakeport State Park already has a half-full campground and a gorgeous, well-maintained Lake Huron beach. It also has shower doors so old, the yellow paint is stripping down to rust.
At Sleepy Hollow State Park north of Lansing, a golden sun sets on Ovid Lake. Nearby wooded campsites give privacy. Mold in the bathhouse ceiling? It seems trivial — unless you actually have to take a shower.
And at popular Grand Haven State Park in west Michigan, at least 1,000 sunbathers crowd the Lake Michigan shore. Big, square RVs nestle close together in the sand like a phalanx of resting hippos. Lawn chairs, barbecues and flip-flops are colorful dots in the blazing sand.
Yet even this popular park needs a new campground registration building. And its parking lot paving is ancient.
"A lot of the infrastructure problems we have in state parks are the hidden things. It's what you push behind the couch when company is coming," said state Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, chairwoman of the state's Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. "They have tried to keep up the basics."
State parks are an important component of Michigan tourism, contributing $580 million a year to the state's economy, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
No funding, but there's hope
After six years without regular state funding, the whole Michigan state parks system is metaphorically held together with duct tape and twine.
Michigan's state parks need $341 million worth of infrastructure repairs and upgrades, according to Ron Olson, chief of the state's Parks and Recreation Division. The long list of repairs was persuasive this spring in getting the Legislature to pass a new funding option for the parks, the Recreation Passport, which starts Oct. 1. If half of the state's car owners sign up, it will bring $35.5 million annually to the parks
But is it too late to turn around Michigan's state parks? The two Free Press reporters drove 2,266 miles around the state to 22 of Michigan's 100 state parks and recreation areas, camping at some. Included were popular and lesser-known parks, in both the upper and lower peninsulas.
There were glaring deficiencies at some — mainly bad roads, careworn showers and lack of staffing — but not unkempt or dirty conditions.
Campers keep on coming
Since 2000, when 26 million people visited Michigan's state parks, the number of annual visitors has fallen to about 20 million. Parks staffing is down 13.5% from 10 years ago. Camping is holding its own.
The Free Press found that on weekdays, some state parks and recreation areas were like private getaways — except for beaches, which were well-used. Reporters also found that certain things most important to officials, like smooth roads or fixing dams, weren't even on the list of what campers actually crave — space, safety, value and peace, none of which carries a price tag.
"We prefer to stay in a state park," said Janet Crawford of Toledo, Ohio, who often camps with her husband and daughter. While camping at Hartwick Pines in Grayling, she said she values space.
"You're not lined up on the top of your neighbor, bam-bam-bam, like the private campgrounds. Here you can have some trees between you and not even see them," she said.
Hartwick Pines also has a pull-through, full-service hookup campground.
Safety of the state parks was the draw for Kelly Amalfritano of Roseville. Children ride bikes all over Hartwick Pines and have the freedom their parents did in neighborhoods years ago.
"The kids can kind of play wherever without you worrying too much," she said.
Quiet? Definitely. "The state parks are kept up better than county parks, and they are good for sleeping," said Jo Ann Zdrojewski of Palms, whose family camps in a brown-and-tan Starcraft trailer at Sleeper State Park near Caseville. The fact that the campground doesn't have the Internet, the latest electrical system or great cell service doesn't bother her.
"We're here to get away from that stuff," she said. "We'll be camping till we die."
Jared Chauvin of Chesterfield Township is hooked on camping with friends. He has camped at Sterling State Park and other parks.
"You go to a bar, and everything is loud. Camping is quiet. No phones, no ringing; you sit around playing cards," said Chauvin, 25. "And it's 40 bucks for the whole weekend. How can you beat that?"
A park for everybody's taste
On a Monday in mid-June at the Lake Hudson Recreation Area in Clayton, two blue herons fluttered on the empty shore. Silence is all-encompassing, almost loud. The only water at the campground is out of an old green hand pump that takes mighty pushing to coax. Want to be alone? Nobody's staffing the entrance. Or the campground. Or the ranger station, either.
That contrasts with Grand Haven, a park so popular patrons line up at the entrance and plan camping far in advance. "To camp here you need to call six months ahead," said Terri Marckini, 50, of Grand Rapids, standing in her bathing cover-up near her sister's family camper in the coveted front row by the beach. "Reservations start at 8 a.m., and if you call at 8:02, you're too late."
If Michigan's new funding source turns on the spigot of cash after Oct. 1, state parks can be spruced up — not just at the busy ones, but at the quiet ones, too.
Staffing can rise. Playgrounds can be built. Showers replaced. Roads paved. Dams fixed. Decline will stop.
At least, that's the hope.
"We know it will take time; it's not going to happen overnight," said Birkholz. "At least we will have money to do things to make it better."