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Proposal 1 ballot measure would change rules on Michigan parks fund

Lansing Parks and Recreation Director Brett Kaschinske is proud to oversee a system that boasts more parks per capita than almost every major U.S. city. 

But with 111 parks in the city’s ownership, he said, finding money to update and improve them has become a bigger priority than adding more land to the system.

“You’ve got to maintain what you’ve got,” he said, and that has become harder in recent years as state lawmakers have diverted billions of dollars away from local government budgets.

There are park bathrooms that need upgrading. Playgrounds due for replacement. A bicycle and pedestrian trail that ends abruptly near Lansing’s southeastern edge, which Kaschinske dreams of extending into East Lansing.

 

“Especially during the pandemic, we’re seeing more and more people using these facilities and wanting those enhancements,” he said. 

As state voters consider a ballot measure this fall that would change the way Michigan spends oil and gas royalties that support Michigan’s public recreation lands — from state parks and forests to local natural areas — Kaschinske sees an opportunity to tick some of those park projects off his to-do list. 

Proposal 1 would enable Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund managers to spend a greater share of the fund on development projects such as playgrounds, restrooms and trails, as opposed to the land buys that currently get about three-quarters of the fund’s money. 

The proposal would also eventually expand the fund by lifting a cap that halted new deposits in 2011.

The measure has attracted broad support from dozens of groups representing environmentalists and industry, tourism and labor. Supporters say the proposed changes will help state and local recreational land managers make needed updates to facilities while expanding amenities to cater to a new generation of land users. 

But opponents argue the changes improperly divert money away from land preservation to plug holes in state and local parks budgets.

The Pigeon River compromise

The trust fund’s roots date back to the 1970s, when Michiganders were locked in fiery debate over Michigan’s sale of oil and gas drilling rights in the Pigeon River Country State Forest northeast of Gaylord. In a compromise with drilling opponents, Michigan lawmakers in 1976 passed a bill that directed revenue from state mineral sales and leases to resource protection and outdoor recreation. 

Eight years later, when a budget crisis prompted lawmakers to eye the royalties to plug Michigan’s budget gap, voters amended the Michigan Constitution to create the Natural Resources Trust Fund, ensuring the money can’t be used for other priorities without their approval.

In the decades since, the fund has awarded $1.2 billion in grants to projects in all 83 Michigan counties. Grant dollars have purchased conservation land along the Detroit River, extended the Pere Marquette Rail Trail between Midland and Clare, and expanded Munising’s Tourist Park Campground, along with many other projects.

The fund has been an “incredibly important” revenue source for Michigan’s public lands, said Bill Rustem, a longtime Republican environmental adviser who sits on the trust fund board.

Without it, Rustem said, “we’d have far fewer trails than we have today. Some state parks would be smaller. You wouldn’t have natural areas in many counties and some species in Michigan just wouldn’t exist.”

But rules that limit the board’s ability to spend money on park development projects such as bike trails, boat launches, interpretive signs and accessibility improvements for disabled users mean that, sometimes, the board is forced to reject good ideas, Rustem said. 

State law requires the board to spend at least 25 percent of the fund’s annual disbursements on land purchases, and no more than 25 percent on development projects. Because of the restrictions on development grants, the vast majority of grant dollars have paid for land acquisitions.

The ballot measure would change that formula, requiring the board to spend at least 25 percent each on land acquisition and development, while letting the board decide how to spend the rest.

It would also lift a $500 million cap that the fund reached in 2011. Since then, mineral royalties have instead gone into the State Parks Endowment Fund, where they pay for land purchases, capital improvements and other priorities at state parks. Under this year’s proposed changes, revenue would flow back into the Natural Resources Trust Fund once the parks fund reaches its $800 million cap — a milestone that could take decades to reach. 

Needed flexibility, or a hit to land preservation?

Proponents of Proposal 1, including the Michigan Environmental Council, The Nature Conservancy, the League of Women Voters and a host of other groups, say it would give fund managers the flexibility they need to keep Michigan’s parks and public lands relevant as park users’ interests change while still leaving plenty of money to buy new land.

But a handful of environmental and conservation groups, including the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Michigan Democratic Party Environmental Caucus, oppose the measure, which they said they fear may undermine land preservation efforts that the trust has traditionally supported. 

Those differing views highlight a common tension in public lands management across the country, said Elizabeth Perry, an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources who studies trends in land management.

Land managers must balance the desire to expand public lands with the reality that it costs money to maintain them and provide the amenities that keep land users coming back.

That tension has increased, Perry said, as park budgets have tightened and recreational trends have shifted away from activities such as hunting and fishing and toward hiking, biking, paddling and other pursuits that may require different infrastructure. 

“If parks aren’t socially relevant, then they risk being erased,” Perry said. “People won’t protect what they don’t see the value of. So we have to continually revisit, how are our parks relevant? Who is coming to the parks, what are they doing, and how can we serve them better?”

Today’s public land users want bike paths, hiking trails, modern restrooms and other facilities that many recreation lands lack, said Clay Summers, executive director of the Michigan Recreation & Park Association, which supports the proposal.

“If Michigan wants to continue to be a state that is looked at as a leader in conservation and recreation, these funding mechanisms have to be updated,” Summers said.

But Andrew Nowicki, Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Environmental Caucus, sees it differently. Nowicki said the group supports upgrading infrastructure on public lands, but it would be “shortsighted” to pay for it by shifting money away from land protection. He also bristled at the state’s continued dependence on oil and gas extraction to fund conservation.

“We’re looking at a long-term band-aid to our parks, at the cost of diverting funding away from land acquisitions that are essential to conservation,” Nowicki said.

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