More Look to Parks as Cost-Efficient Getaways

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April 25, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Michigan's 2011 camping season is shaping up to be a big one.

A variety of factors — economic gains, higher gas prices and the introduction of the state's Recreation Passport option for motorists — have residents making plans to head for Michigan's campgrounds this year. Reservations at both private and, particularly, state campgrounds such as Algonac State Park are up by as much as 18.5% over last year, The Detroit News reported.

Macomb Township resident Tom Bemiss, who got in his first camping trip of the year a weekend ago at Algonac State Park near Marine City, understands completely.

"It's a cheaper way to go on vacation if you stay within Michigan and don't have to fly somewhere," said the 48-year-old plant manager. "Nowadays, if you want to get into a decent campsite … you can't just wait until a month before you go to book it. It'll be too late."

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources also reports that boat slip reservations are up roughly 15%. Year-to-year fluctuations are normally in the 2% to 3% range.

"With the economy showing signs of improvement, we think people are feeling more confident about planning their vacations," said Mary Dettloff, spokeswoman for the DNR. In March last year, Michigan's unemployment rate was 13%. As camping season begins this year, the rate is 10%.

Michigan has 98 state parks and recreation areas, along with six state forests. Camping season in those areas runs from the first weeks of April through the last weeks of October, and peak season is between May and September.

In recent years, the parks and forests had about 4 million visitors a year and campground usage showed slight increases or flat growth year to year. But before the economic slump, the annual visitation level was closer to 5 million.

In October, Michigan introduced its Recreation Passport — a $10 sticker for Michigan license plates that allows entry into the state parks. It replaced the old window sticker system that charged $24 for the same access. Meanwhile, rates for renting camping or RV spaces have stayed the same.

Gas prices a factor

Residents typically enroll in the passport program when they renew their vehicle registrations. So far, 22.5% of all motorists renewing registrations have opted into the program. As of mid-April, the program had generated more than $7.6 million, according to the DNR.

Gas prices that hovered near the $4 per gallon level last week are another factor likely making camping in-state more attractive this year, according to AAA Michigan.

"When gas prices get higher, we know campgrounds become an increasingly popular destination," said Nancy Cain, spokeswoman for AAA Michigan. "We know we're seeing more interest among people planning their vacations further out, whether it's closer to home or longer destinations."

The interest shown in state park campgrounds also is being felt to a lesser degree at private campgrounds, one industry official said.

"Reservations seem to be up, although not as high as 20%," said Tracie Fisher, executive director of the Frankenmuth-based Michigan Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds.

"One of the trends we're seeing is we have more people calling for seasonal sites — for stays of one to two months — at our campgrounds."

Fisher said she believes those extended stays are the result of families doing the math and seeing it as a cost-efficient way of vacationing. Campground owners, she said, feel the interest rise at times when people are watching their spending closely.

In addition, increases in amenities and programs at campgrounds as owners compete for business have made the pastime more attractive to more people.

"Private campground owners will organize all kinds of activities for their campers these days: potluck dinners, Easter egg hunts … craft activities," Fisher said.

Fewer campgrounds?

The spike in camping interest, however, comes as DNR officials have proposed closing as many as 23 underperforming campgrounds on state forest land. Earlier this month, the agency announced its list of targeted sites in the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula, saying it no longer could afford to maintain them.

In two years, DNR's Forest Recreation Program has lost 63% of its funding. But even seeing more campers this year at those targeted forest campgrounds wouldn't likely to be enough to help the situation, Dettloff said. They have seen declining use for years.

"It's purely an economic decision," she said. "We can't operate the program if it's taking such a big hit in revenue."

Forest campgrounds on the chopping block may be saved by a proposal by Republican lawmakers for local government control of them. Rights to the lands could be transferred to municipalities for $1 in return for those governments continuing to operate the campgrounds.

"If the DNR is unwilling or unable to handle this assignment, then local units may be the answer," said state Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, one of those who generated the compromise plan, in a written statement.

For people such as Bemiss, any loss of Michigan campsites could have an impact. His group of four friends camps at least 10 times a year. And aside from a few annual favorites such as Algonac, he said, variety is nice to have.

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