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Michigan parks need more summer workers to help with spike in visitors

people posting for a picture at a waterfall
Barbara Czapla, 55, has become a regular visitor to state and local parks since the pandemic. Here she is at Tahquamenon State Park along with other avid hikers. (Courtesy photo)
  • Registration for camping and hiking at Michigan parks has increased since 2019 
  • Park officials encourage visitors to book trips as early as six months in advance
  • The influx of visitors underscores the need for additional workers at Michigan parks

Registration for state parks is steadily increasing and Michiganders are encouraged to make reservations early to secure their spot, experts told Bridge

In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Michigan’s state parks had about 28 million visitors, according to Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Visitation increased to 35 million people by 2021. There were about the same number of visitors again in the 2022 season, and similar levels are expected for this year, Olson said.

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The struggle has been making sure the parks are well staffed to meet the demands of campers, hikers and nature lovers.

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“We added almost 40 positions in the system …  and over 30 of them were in the field operations that manage the parks,” Olson said.  

It takes about 1300 temporary summer workers to help with the operation at the state’s 103 state parks between late spring and early fall. Last season, the department was only able to hire 900 temporary workers for the most high-demand months. 

The increase in visitors was boosted by people working from home during the later part of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“People also found that they were working remotely so they would stay at campgrounds longer and the season stretched out into the fall, " Olson said. 

“Even during the week we saw a lot of people on campgrounds. Visitation was (as) busy during the week as they were on a lot of weekends.” 

5 state parks to visit or work at this summer

More people are camping and hiking at state, national, local and Metroparks across Michigan. Below are links to five popular state parks where you can book reservations or search for temporary job openings: 

  1. Tahquamenon Falls State Park
  2. Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
  3. Hartwick Pines State Park
  4. Palms Book State Park
  5. Saugatuck Dunes State Park

Like state parks, regional metroparks have seen an increase in visitors. Since 2019, park attendance has increased 14 percent as of last year. Annual passholders visited metroparks 8 times more in 2022 than they did before the pandemic. 

“It gets harder and harder to hire staff it seems,” said Danielle Mauter, chief of marketing and communications for Huron-Clinton Metroparks. “A lot of our facilities do depend directly on us being able to find and fill those staff openings. 

Still, popular parks like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park are already taking reservations for this summer. 

There was such an influx of people coming to the park that “cars were driving off the shoulder of the roads and just walking 20 feet into the woods and they’re clearing areas, causing damage to the resources,” said Susan Reece, chief of interpretation and education for Picture Rocks National Park. 

People illegally camping and making new trails was especially an issue during the 2020 and 2021 season, but returned to normal levels during the 2022  season. 

“We had a lot of people who were new to it so they didn’t really understand how we expect people to behave in our national parks,” she said. 

Barbara Czapla, 55, Shelby Township, started hiking and camping more seriously during the beginning of the pandemic. Now, she goes camping with about 30 people at various state parks “sleep under the stars.” 

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“As soon as I knew where I wanted to go, I made a reservation,” she said. 

“We know that for the best spots, you have to reserve six months in advance,” Czapla said. “With more notice it's much more pleasant in the experience. With more notice you have a better opportunity to get to the amazing sites where you can wake up in the morning and see the sunrise.” 

Czapla, also known by her trail name, Bunnie, said she takes a daily hike at one of the 13 metroparks in southeast Michigan.

“I feel like I'm a better person for embracing what this amazing state has to offer,” she said. 

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