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Opinion | Spend $500 million on outdoors to boost Michigan for decades

As the Michigan Legislature looks for ways to invest in the future of our state, it is our sincere hope that lawmakers can see the forest through the trees — literally.

Rich Bowman
Rich Bowman is policy director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.

Half of our state is covered in forests — roughly 20 million acres — and the towering fir, maple and hemlock trees are the backdrop for an outdoor recreation industry that is booming in Michigan. However, to keep it that way, Michigan must invest in its outdoor spaces.

As lawmakers craft the upcoming budget and determine what to do with a $9 billion budget surplus, they have a unique opportunity to make a one-time investment of $500 million in our parks and outdoor spaces through the State Park Endowment Fund. This investment would benefit Michiganders for decades.

Doing so would amount to an $80 million tax cut every year, forever, because taxes would no longer be needed to fund operations of our state parks. It would also help support an industry that is only going to continue to grow.

According to a report released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the outdoor recreation industry had a nearly $11 billion economic impact on our state’s economy and supported over 109,000 jobs in 2021.

Boating and fishing had the biggest impact on the state’s economy, followed by RVing and hunting. Michigan ranks in the top 20 across all outdoor recreation industry segments tracked by the BEA, which also include camping, snow activities and bicycling.

For decades, Michigan’s great outdoors have provided a respite from the daily grind — a place to find solitude on the trail, relax on the beach or explore the backcountry. Our state is a beacon of outdoor adventure, not just for Michiganders but for people across the Midwest.

By using money from the state’s budget surplus to fully fund the State Park Endowment Fund, Michigan can take the burden of maintaining and improving our parks off the backs of hardworking Michiganders, now and into the future.

This one-time payment would also fulfill the goal of 2020’s Proposal 1 long before many thought possible. Proposal 1, which removed the funding cap on the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, was overwhelmingly approved by voters because they saw the benefit of supporting the places that make Michigan so special — from our Great Lakes beaches and public lands to our trails, paths, parks and playgrounds.

A one-time allocation to the State Park Endowment Fund should be a tax break we can all get behind. It ensures our children and grandchildren won’t have to pay for the upkeep of our outdoor spaces and guarantees Michigan’s natural beauty can be enjoyed by future generations.

Last spring, the Legislature took a good first step by making a $250 million investment in state park infrastructure. This money was desperately needed to catch up on a backlog of deferred maintenance, but it won’t last forever. Fully funding the state parks operation and maintenance means we don’t fall behind and our children and grandchildren won’t have to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to help our parks get “caught up” again.

As lawmakers look for ways to ensure Michigan is a better place for future generations, they need look no further than our outdoor spaces, which have created memories that will last a lifetime.

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