The Natural Resources Trust Fund has played a major role in making Michigan a national leader in outdoor recreation, but the program also has provided millions of dollars for such less than natural things as parking lots, restrooms and playgrounds.
State records show the Trust Fund, over the past 36 years, has provided funding for 265 parking lot projects, 157 restrooms, 97 ball fields, 73 playgrounds and eight swimming pools. All of the parking lots were associated with a recreational facility.
According to state records, the most recent round of Trust Fund grants included:
- $300,000 to build a 325-space parking area in a Cass County park.
- $91,300 to pave parking lots at three Alma city parks.
- $300,000 to build an in-ground, concrete skate park in Ann Arbor.
- $300,000 to renovate a public pool in Ypsilanti.
State officials said all of those projects fit with the Trust Fund’s mission, which is to "buy property and develop projects that have recreational or natural resources value to Michigan citizens."
"The Trust Fund has stayed true to its mission," said Bob Garner, who leads the fund’s board of directors. "Originally the trust would only buy land for hunting and fishing … but our whole concept of the outdoors is changing as a society."
Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, agreed that fishing and hunting aren’t the only kinds of outdoor recreation that are deserving of Trust Fund grants.
"We have to be very careful not to judge — outdoor recreation means different things to different people," McDonough said. "Providing outdoor recreation for all people is part of the vision of the Trust Fund."
The Trust Fund has two distinct programs: One provides money to acquire land; the other funds development of recreational facilities. The development side of the Trust Fund is what funds bathrooms, parking lots, ball fields and myriad other outdoor recreation facilities.
Each year, at least 25 percent of the Trust Fund’s grants go toward buying land. Not more than 25 percent of the fund’s total expenditures may be used for development of public recreation facilities.
"You’re buying toilets with development funds, as opposed to buying land," Garner said.
Jeff Cook, president of Greenville-based Southwestern Oil and head of the Michigan Oil and Gas Producers Education Foundation, said the Trust Fund has stayed true to its mission. Royalties on oil and gas extracted on state land provide the revenue for the Natural Resources Trust Fund.
"The Trust Fund’s primary purpose was the protection of natural resources, but these secondary goals —public access to waterways and outdoor recreation in urban areas — were also at its core," Cook said. "While the fund is called the Natural Resources Trust Fund, the definition of natural resources is broad."
Steve DeBrabander, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources grants manager who oversees the Trust Fund, said a reduction in yearly Trust Fund grants could soon halt funding for some types of recreation projects.
The Trust Fund reached its funding cap of $500 million in 2011. From now on, the state can only give grants from the interest earned on the Trust Fund’s principal. The $500 million nest egg is off-limits -- unless voters amend the state Constitution.
Reaching the cap means the Trust Fund will reduce the amount of grants awarded annually from roughly $35 million to about $25 million, DeBrabander said. With less money for grants, he said the Trust Fund board would soon re-assess what types of recreation projects are worthy of funding.
"One thing that may happen is a more focused approach in the future, instead of all types of outdoor recreation being eligible for grants," DeBrabander said.
Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.