Columnist: Will Reorganized Michigan DNR Lead to Improvements?
Editor's Note: The following column was written by Howard Myerson and appeared in The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press. E-mail Howard Meyerson: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/HMeyerson.
A pressing bit of business at the (Michigan) Department of Natural Resources has state trail enthusiasts watching closely to see what happens.
The agency reorganized its forest management division in December and moved its forest recreation programs to the parks and recreation division that operates state parks. The move affects rail or forest trails for equestrians, skiers, hikers, bikers, snowmobilers, ORVers and rustic, state forest campgrounds and boat launches.
At first glance it might seem a good fit — and likely, given the agency’s leadership today, it will be.
But it isn’t the first time it has been tried. To make it work will take cooperation, leadership and commitment on a scale not seen before.
“For the most part, we are looking forward to being partners with parks and recreation,” said Bill Manson, executive director for the Michigan Snowmobile Association. MSA has several thousand members. Manson and several of MSA’s officers have been instrumental in the development of Michigan’s 6,500-mile snowmobile trail system.
“This isn’t new,” Manson said. “I thought it was the fourth time, but it’s actually the fifth time we’ve been moved.”
Manson thinks the move is a good fit. Snowmobiling is outdoor recreation, and recreation is part of the parks and recreation division mission. The move purportedly leaves the forest folks to manage for timber; no more messing around with rustic campgrounds and hiking trails.
Pat Brower, with the Great Lakes 4Wheel Drive organization, is also watching. He thinks the move is appropriate. His members hit the woods in their Jeeps and trucks. They use the state’s 3,500-mile Off-Highway Vehicle trails and another 50 to 60 miles designated for four-wheel drive use.
The shift, he said, consolidates ORV program management in one division. Silver Lake State Park has its own ORV dune areas.
“We’re watching to see what happens,” Brower said.
Each of these motorized programs is self-contained. Users pay fees which fund trail development and maintenance. But Manson and Brower have some concern about how the DNR will manage things on the ground. Many of their trails run through state forests. Local issues, in the past, were handled by forest management field staff. State parks have no field staff outside of parks.
“Our concern is communication,” Manson said. “In the past we would work with a parks program manager, decide something and it didn’t get transferred over to forest management division.”
Ron Olson, Michigan’s state park chief, said the process is being worked out.
“Our plan is to keep (local) contacts the same until we have looked thoroughly at the benefits of changing things,” he said.
But what of the other forest recreation programs: the non-motorized trails and rustic campgrounds? Those historically underfunded areas got short-shrift from state parks the last time this happened.
One huge difference this time is they now get money from the state’s recreation passport about $426,000 this year. In the past, it relied on camping fees and declining general fund tax revenues. That meant that program staff had to lobby for funds within an agency that long favored funding state parks.
Olson said he is committed to determining the best way to combine programs.
The DNR will survey users. Rustic campgrounds will be assessed for their strengths. River campgrounds will be assessed to see if they could be used to create canoe or kayak camping river trails.
Camping revenues will come under the microscope, too. Non-payment by campers runs from 30% to 50%, according to DNR staff. State forest campgrounds operate on the honor system. Olson plans to see what can be done to improve camper compliance.
“Our first objective is to run these campgrounds as efficiently as we can,” Olson said. “That (missing) money may be an opportunity. We now have the $426,00 passport money, but we haven’t figured out how to allocate it yet.
“My goal is not to close anything, but it (a campground) may be repositioned. We might take one that gets few visitors and reclassify it as dispersed camping or seek a partner to operate it.”
Olson said the state’s Snowmobile and Trails Advisory Committee will be handled by his division. That’s the group overseeing development of a state trails plan for various users, including horses
Manson, I believe, had it right when he suggested the communications issues between state parks and the rest is going to take more than a handshake between division chiefs. It will take a clear and strong message from the top.
“The bigger commitment needs to come from the director, Rodney Stokes,” Manson said.
Stokes sent a letter to key trails staff and user groups in December. In it, he announced the change. It said: “We look forward to getting to know each of you and continuing our collaboration with you to keep Michigan a national leader in recreation trails into the future.”