With record interest in state parks, let’s take steps to protect them

This is an election year, so the rhetoric will be ultra- hot and sadly contentious. Why not try to fix on subjects that draw all sides together to benefit our people?

A good choice is to focus on what makes Michigan such a distinctive state: Our unparalleled natural resources, ranging from our unpolluted lakes and streams, to our magnificent towering forests, our beaches and swamps – all sustaining our legions of wildlife, whether glorious eagles or dazzling brook trout.

Natural resources in America are largely protected for public use and enjoyment through our national and state system of parks, often called “America’s best idea.” And last year set visitor records for both systems.

Four parks in Michigan – Isle Royale, Pictured Rocks National Seashore, Sleeping Bear Dunes and River Raisin Battlefield – showed double-digit increases in visitors. And two – Pictured Rocks and River Raisin – set visitor records in 2015, according to the National Park Service, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Sleeping Bear Dunes, which runs along 35 miles of Lake Michigan coast, was the most popular national park in Michigan, drawing 1.5 million visitors last year. Pictured Rocks, located on the north coast of the U.P., attracted a record-setting 735,628 visitors in 2015, according to the National Park Service.

Our parks’ popularity marched in step with the national trend. Total visits to national parks should hit 300 million in 2015, beating out last year’s record of 293 million.

Despite the undoubted popularity of our natural resources, politics in recent years has played an important role in restricting both national and state park growth.

Nationally, tight budgets have restricted creation of new national parks. Moreover, Republican criticism of “governmental overreach” has resulted in introduction of bills – called “No New National Parks Bills” – to strip current and future presidents of authority to designate new national monuments. Some critics argue the current Republican majority in Congress would never vote to renew the Antiquities Act of 1906, which President Theodore Roosevelt used to create our present system of national parks.

Led particularly by Republican lawmakers from the U.P., concern in Michigan has focused on the amount of land owned by the state, currently 4.626 million acres or around seven percent of the state’s total land area. Although this amount hasn’t changed much since 1940, Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 signed a law that capped the amount of land that the state could own. Critics charge that “enough land is too much”, while pro-park people say it makes no sense to put arbitrary caps on public ownership of land reserved for public purposes.

OK, OK. Let’s let that largely partisan argument fizz on the sidelines. And let’s remember how many millions of ordinary Americans voted with their feet, tents and tourism money to visit national and state parks. That’s an enormous political constituency solidly in favor of protecting our natural resources.

Maybe it’s time for some fresh thinking about how best to do it, especially the idea of creating public-private partnerships that offer a model for conserving ecologically important landscapes and the wildlife that live on them. Such a hybrid system wouldn’t have to rely on political log-rolling or government funding by linking private resources and public policies to preserve lands and wildlife for posterity.

This approach was pioneered in the 1990s by the Michigan chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which assembled millions in private funds to buy conservation easements that provide for continued, sustainable timber harvesting as well as public access for recreation for 248,000 acres and outright purchase of 23,000 acres of the Two Hearted River watershed. This extraordinary project, at the time the largest conservation land deal ever consummated in the lower 48 states, stitched together previously publicly owned tracts into a contiguous protected landscape of 2.1 million acres.

The project was funded largely by Michigan’s great foundations and individual philanthropists and achieved through the active involvement of two Michigan governors (Republican John Engler and Democrat Jennifer Granholm) and the Nature Conservancy. I still remember Gov. Engler padding around his conference room serving coffee to a crowd of assembled foundation heads and Gov. Granholm engaging in direct negotiations between the Nature Conservancy and the Forestland Group, the owner of much of the land in question.

The need for preserving our natural resources persists, according to Helen Taylor, state director of the Nature Conservancy. “Great Lakes and the shorelines, inland lakes, streams and forests are central to a healthy economy and quality of life in Michigan, and they need continued balanced, science-based long-term conservation and restoration so they are there for future generations.”

Much of this work, says Taylor, need not involve state purchase of land; instead, it needs fresh thinking, innovative partnerships and invention of more hybrid projects. Gov. Snyder should take advantage of newly appointed leadership in the Department of Environmental Quality (Keith Creagh) and the Department of Natural Resources (Bill Moritz) to call together experts in natural resources, Michigan philanthropists and what might be called “environmental entrepreneurs” to help advance the state’s land and water strategies to develop a new agenda to focus our attention on the subjects we can agree on rather than the partisanship which is sure to divide us.

New thinking of this sort can importantly come from concerned Michigan residents, particularly readers of Bridge Magazine. As a way to mark and celebrate the New Year, I urge you to send in your comments and innovative suggestions to set a new agenda that could benefit all Michigan’s people for generations to come.

[Disclosure: Helen Taylor is a member of Bridge Magazine’s steering committee. Phil Power is an honorary life trustee of the Nature Conservancy in Michigan, and was board chairman of the organization at the time of the Two-Hearted River land deal noted in this column.]

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Charles Richards
Tue, 01/05/2016 - 1:26pm
After noting the millions of people who visit state and national parks, Mr. Power says, "That’s an enormous political constituency solidly in favor of protecting our natural resources." And that's absolutely true, but it is not evidence of support for adding additional parks. If nearly seven percent of Michigan's land area is not sufficient for parks, what is? What would Mr. Power stipulate as adequate? What if our current collection of parks is adequate to satisfy nature lovers? Then adding more parkland would divide current patronage among more sites, which would necessitate more supervisory overhead for the same number of visitors. Surely, having a good park system is a good thing, but anything can be carried to excess. I'm afraid that much of the impetus for additional parks is a subtle, but very real hostility to the idea of private property.
Tanya Cabala
Wed, 01/06/2016 - 10:17am
I doubt anyone who has experienced Michigan's state parks would worry that we could have too many.
Tue, 01/05/2016 - 2:13pm
At the risk of asking a patently obvious question: What exactly are we "protecting" state parks from? This articles fails make any mention whatsoever.
Deborah Torres-...
Tue, 01/05/2016 - 2:46pm
The River Raisin National Battlefield Park is not for 'nature lovers'. It commemorates the pivotal battle of Frenchtown (near Monroe) in 1813. Even though I want to elementary school in Michigan (a few decades ago) I had never learned of the events of this battle. 'Remember the Raisin' meant nothing to me but 'Tippecanoe & Tyler Too' did - both battles in the same war. Why did we now about the battles in Indiana but not Michigan? Recognizing history & commemorating the actions of two centuries ago in our own backyard is not frivolous. The only reason I knew about this battlefield was because I read about it in my "Passport to Your National Parks" that I purchased in Thurmond, WV at a National Park. There was a man visiting River Raisin from Nebraska we met - he also found out about this site from his "Passport"
Tue, 01/05/2016 - 5:57pm
Why did we now about the battles in Indiana but not Michigan? Tyler later became President, so it got more attention for that reason I would guess.
Wed, 01/06/2016 - 6:09pm
I wonder what Mr. Power really wants. Does he want support for parks or does he just want selected people to support the parks? I learned a long time ago that when you want something achieved you start by asking and listening, not by blaming. It appears Mr. Power is blaming the Republicans for the state of the parks. He does it in such a way that I am irritated and I am not even a Republican and am someone who thinks our parks can provide even more value to our communities with proper support. "OK, OK. Let’s let that largely partisan argument fizz on the sidelines." Can someone help me understand why people make everything partisan before they claim they don't want them to be partisan? Both in this article and Mr. Power says we need new ideas, and yet he seems to avoid asking. Why would you say one thing and not do the other. From all I have read in the Bridge reader comments, I have to believe the readers could be a good source of innovative ideas and in conversation they could develop some very effective new approaches to making the parks more valuable to all of us.
Thu, 01/07/2016 - 11:17am
You have chosen a poor and misleading title for this article. Most of the parks you mentioned are national parks found within Michigan's borders and are not state run parks at all. The truly sad story that needs your attention is the demise of our state park system which contributes mightily to our tourism industry. In the seventies 50% of our state park operating funds came from the general fund. In1980 that was reduced to 15% and ten years ago general fun support was totally eliminated. A citizen's committee recommended creating the recreation pass port as an opt out program tied to annual vehicle registration. A program that had been very successful in several other states. Our legislators in their infinite wisdom insisted this be changed to an untested opt in program so that their names could not be linked to a proposal that might be considered a tax increase by some. This untested concept turned out to be a dud, and our state park system is worse off than ever before. Buying more land is important, but so is properly preserving maintaining and operating what we have. This is a topic worthy of some serious investigative reporting.
Tue, 01/12/2016 - 8:53pm
Tom, you make sense. One concern I have is that no one is really getting alarmed enough to try and keep carp from Lake Michigan or make sure Canada does not build a toxic waste site close to the Great Lakes, or settle the issue of draining the lakes for water out west. Instead of expand at this point lets protect.
Fri, 01/08/2016 - 11:55am
"This untested concept turned out to be a dud, and our state park system is worse off than ever before. Buying more land is important, but so is properly preserving maintaining and operating what we have. This is a topic worthy of some serious investigative reporting."Have you ever been to Belle Isle, Tom? I'm strongly leaning towards "no", because if you have, then you would be hard-pressed to defend the condition of that state park as recently as three years ago compared to today. One more thing, unlike you, I'm not inclined to make other people pay for the things I want. Nothing ticks off Americans more than to have some government bureaucrat reaching into their pocket to pay for someone's entertainment (The DIA Detroit Bailout is a perfect example). If you want to encourage something, go out and talk to your friends and neighbors and get them to voluntarily give to your favorite cause(s). No one from the government takes money its citizens and gives it to The Henry Ford, The DSO or even MiSci. And last time I checked, those institutions are doing well with what they are able to get people to voluntarily donate. What are they doing that cannot be replicated?
Sun, 01/10/2016 - 2:03pm
I have long been a lover of Michigan state and national parks for camping, hiking, skiing, swimming and boating to name a few of the life renewing outdoor benefits that these preserved lands provide for me. I first traveled through the Upper Peninsula with my U.P. born mother in 1965. After several days crisscrossing the length of the peninsula, my question to her was "Where are the people?" (I was 17.) Today, my husband and I own and enjoy a small lot mid-peninsulaas our "home" base in the U.P. My mature self laments seeing abandoned, deteriorating trailers and cottages on what seems like every 10 acres in private ownership. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to those visionary souls who worked and those who still work to hold on to state and federal lands that nourish wildlife, we humans, and the long term wellbeing of our magnificent state .
Isabelle Parker
Sun, 01/10/2016 - 3:52pm
Let's protect Belle Isle by prohibiting motor sports. Roger Penske and his crimiinal sons can find some other place to annually lose six million dollars. They can restore the ten acre concrete parking lotl he installed, and then paid King Kwame $ 60,000 for his permission
Wed, 01/20/2016 - 11:09am
I am a creative entrepreneur and a Michigan native, passionate but still eagerly learning about these issues. I am interested in helping. Is there a place for someone like me in all of this?