Five years later, state parks Recreation Passport a financial success

The idea was a gamble, born from a budget crisis.

With Michigan's state parks starved for funds, why not scrap the windshield sticker entry system in place for decades for Michigan residents and replace it with a $10 annual license plate pass?

“It was definitely a calculated risk,” recalled Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreation for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources. “But I told the staff at the time that the big box of money is not going to fall out of the sky. We had to try something different.”

Different worked, better than many imagined.

As they launched the Recreation Passport just about five years ago in October 2010, officials calculated that 17 percent of motorists needed to sign up to match revenue under the old system. Nearly 25 percent opted in. That percentage climbed to 28.5 percent in fiscal 2014, as Michigan followed Montana as the second state in the country to fund parks through optional license plate fees.

Revenue for park improvement jumped from $13.9 million the last year of the sticker system to $15.1 million, $16 million, $16.7 million and $17.6 million in succeeding fiscal years.

Under the old system, Michigan residents were charged $6 for a day visit to a state park or $24 for an annual pass. The Recreation Passport, which is pegged to inflation, increased to $11 a year in January 2013 for admission to the state's 98 state parks, recreation areas and boat launches.

Daily passes are no longer available for Michigan residents. Michigan residents who do not have a Recreation Passport license plate tab are charged $11 for a Recreation Passport window sticker. Non-residents are charged $9 for daily entrance.

Walking out of a Secretary of State office in Grand Rapids in June, northern Kent County resident Karla Radius said she and her husband, Mark, signed up for the Recreation Passport each year since its start.

“I love it. It's so much easier this way,” Radius said.

Radius said she and her husband don't visit state parks as much as they used to when their children were younger. But even with their children grown and out of the house, they still make it to Grand Haven State Park now and then for day trips.

“We just think it's money well spent to keep the parks in good condition. We want it to be in good shape for our children,” Radius said.

But that goal remains a work in progress, as the DNR responds to tight budgets and shifting tastes in the outdoors with inducements that range from yurts, yoga and disc golf to deluxe cabins and Halloween camping festivals: This is not your father's state park system.

And despite revenue gains from the Recreation Passport, Olson concedes the park system is not out of the woods, given estimates that the park system faces more than $300 million in deferred capital improvement projects. It's the residue of a decade of recession, expired bond funds and the decision by the Legislature to kill approximately $9 million in annual general fund spending on parks beginning in 2003.

It also may be that state parks are up against a national trend – young people enamored of smart phones and video games appear to be spending less time outdoors than their parents and grandparents. After 25 years of steady increases, the number of visits to U.S. national parks hit a peak of 287 million in 1987 and then leveled off. That number wasn't reached again until 2014, when visits totaled 292 million.

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a survey found the share of summer visitors over age 61 increased from 10 percent in 1996 to 17 percent in 2008, while the percentage of those 15 and under fell from 26 percent to 22 percent.

In Michigan, state park nightly booked camp spots peaked at 1,185,507 in fiscal 1999, falling as low as 848,623 in 2010 before rebounding to just over 1 million in 2012 and 2013. It fell to 964,776 in 2014.

Mindful of those numbers, Olson said the old ways simply won't do.

“We know we need to find things that are relevant to the younger age group. This is a pervasive issue around the country.

“We also told the staff that the idea of 'Here we are. The beach is over there,' is over. There had to be more than that to our parks. We had to be adding value,” he said.

And sometimes it's about seeing value that is already there.

In 2003, the rustic, two-story park manager's headquarters in the Upper Peninsula's Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park was shuttered, part of budget cutbacks throughout the system. It was slated for demolition.

Park users, including a nonprofit park support group called Friends of the Porkies, pushed back and that decision was put on hold. Olson came on board as chief of Parks and Recreation in 2005 and decided it was a resource well worth saving.

In 2006, thanks to donated appliances, curtains and considerable work restoring its maple hardwood flooring, the former headquarters building opened to the public for rental. Perched a stone's throw from the shore of Lake Superior, it hasn't been a tough sell.

“It's incredibly popular, especially on the weekends,” said Sandra Richardson, an administrative assistant at the park. At $190 a night, the lodge is often booked solid much of the winter and prime summer months. It rents out about 180 days a year, she said.

The park system now rents out 10 other lodges – formerly park manager homes - in parks across the state.

Other innovations

Harvest Festivals: Campers in a park or two started the tradition a couple decades ago, as campgrounds that had been mostly empty in fall became Halloween or harvest festival destination venues. Now these celebrations are in three-fourths of Michigan's state parks.

At Bay City Recreation Area, the 190-site park is typically wall-to-wall with campers three consecutive weekends in late September and early October for its fall festival. Most are adults with young children, armed with trick-or-treat bags as they trek from site to site.

“The trick-or-treating is huge,” said park manager George Lauinger. “It's a big excitement, you can see the smile on their face. They are just having a blast.

“We started out with one weekend and we were turning so many away that we expanded it to two weekends. We were still turning people away, so we expanded it to three weekends,” he said.

Even at three weekends, Lauinger said: “We're still turning people away.”

Lauinger said the festival in effect introduces children who might not otherwise camp to the great outdoors.

“It's a great way to nab their interest. They can go on hiking trails, go to the exhibit center. There's a lot of chances for them to explore the outdoors while they are here.”

According to Maia Turek, recreation programmer for Parks and Recreation, there are now harvest festivals in approximately 75 state parks. “The revenue we are generating from campground fees is revenue that we didn't have before,” Turek said.

Yurts: In 2006, Parks and Recreation took a page from ancient Mongolia as it introduced yurts, circular tent-like structures indigenous to the nomads of Central Asia, to the camping public. Michigan was the first state in the Upper Midwest to install yurts in its park system, which now offers the option at two parks in the Upper Peninsula and three in the Lower Peninsula. They rent for $65 a night and sleep five to seven adults.

In remote Craig Lake State Park west of Marquette, the yurt at Teddy Lake is a quarter-mile hike from the parking lot in summer. But because the park uses a different access road in winter, occupants have a 3.5-mile trek by snowshoe or cross-country skiing to the yurt in winter. Still, it's typically booked most of January, February and March and is occupied more than 200 days a year.

“People say it's the quietest place they've ever been to in their lives,” said park supervisor Douglas Barry.

“You get there and it's complete solitude. You hear nothing at all, maybe a little rustling in the trees and an occasional animal call or bird call. You hear absolutely nothing except the crackle of your wood stove.”

The department expects to add yurts as demand warrants.

Deluxe Cabins: With a nod to what some call “glamping,” Park and Recreation officials say some folks just won't camp without certain amenities.

In 2012, the DNR installed two cabins with indoor bathroom facilities at Holly Recreation Area southeast of Flint and two at Ionia Recreation Area east of Grand Rapids. More spacious than typical cabins, they were built in part by inmates in the state prison system.

The cabins are equipped with a bathroom with shower, sink and toilet, a small kitchen with sink, mini-fridge, toaster oven and coffee maker. They rent for $86 Sunday through Thursday and $120 Friday and Saturday.

Shawn Speaker, manager of Holly Recreation Area, said the cabins have proven “very popular and are rented around 90 percent of the summer. There seems to be a trend towards people wanting more modern camping experiences and these cabins provide that opportunity at a very reasonable price.”

Disc golf: In 2006, disc golf courses began popping up in state parks as officials sought to broaden appeal to a segment of the 20-something crowd that might not otherwise visit a state park. There are now nine disc courses in parks around the state, including one at Holly Recreation Area that opened in 2007.

According to Olson, motor vehicle park permit sales went up $25,000 the first year after the disc course was installed at Holly.

Big Green Gym: Encourage the public to see state parks as vast, outdoor fitness venues.

In partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and local fitness instructors, Parks and Recreation is staging outdoor fitness classes in yoga, Pilates and strength and cardiovascular training in parks around the state, a program that began in 2012. It also organizes free guided sessions for park visitors for everything from mountain biking to kayaking to mushroom hunting.

“We really want people to see state parks as a place where you can be fit and active,” recreation programmer Turek said. “The idea is to connect parks with healthy lifestyles.”

Turek estimated that 8,000 people took part in those activities in 2014.

She recalled a yoga class offered in 2013 at Aloha State Park in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“It was a sunset yoga class and the instructor set up Tiki torches and so they are lying there, watching the sunset, seeing nature. She had around four people in the beginning and about 16 regulars by the end of the summer,” Turek said.

“They loved it.”

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Thu, 07/16/2015 - 11:50am
We opted-in for all three of our vehicles when it first became available even though we haven't camped at a State park in many years. We just figured it was a painless way to support Michigan's wonderful State park system.
John S.
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 12:13pm
Olson deserves a lot of praise for his innovations and effective management of the parks under conditions of fiscal austerity. It's unrealistic, however, to think that user fees should or will generate sufficient revenues for the parks. The parks should get some revenues from the general fund. There are significant economic spillovers from the parks, especially in adjacent local communities, and that should be sufficient reason for park funding out of the general fund. Out of state visitors to the parks bring a lot of money into Michigan. Olson might consider congestion pricing at some of the more popular parks, like Ludington. People arriving with $50K+ campers during peak times in the summer months can afford to and should pay more money to rent their sites.
Tom Hodgson
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 1:47pm
In spite of declared “success” of the recreation passport it is only generating a fraction of what it would have as originally proposed. The citizen committee for our state parks recommended that the recreation passport program be an opt out instead of opt in program. This was based on very successful programs in several other states. Unfortunately, at the last moment the legislature refused to support the program unless it was changed to an opt in program, a model with no history anywhere else in the country. I believe this was done because conservative members of the legislature didn’t want to be associated with anything that might be viewed as a tax increase. As a result, this program generates only a fraction of the revenue generated by the opt out programs after which it was originally modeled. The state park system continues to be the poor step-child of our state government. Until the late 1970’s the general fund provided 50% of the state park operating budget, when that was reduced to just 15%. Several years ago remaining general fund support was reduced to zero. This article is really a weak attempt to put a smiley face on what is still a deplorable situation. Our state park system deserves better than to be ignored or worse yet from being impeded by a legislature that clearly does not recognize the value of the contributions it makes to the tourist industry and the over- all quality of life in Michigan
Tracy Davis
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 3:52pm
Yes Tom, clearly we should trick people into paying. You are part of the problem!
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 3:53pm
so with all the neglect and tight budgets, our politicians still found it desirable to stick the entire state with the cost and investment for Belle Isle park? Some how I double money was specially appropriated for this and so it was just and will continue to be sucked out of the regular DNR budget.
Tom Hodgson
Thu, 07/16/2015 - 6:47pm
No trick intended Tracy, it's just human nature that it is easier for people to passively resist a request, i.e. ignore the opt in check off box than to actively resist, i.e. to actively place a check in the opt out box. To do the latter one must give it more thought.
Fri, 07/17/2015 - 5:18pm
Not only that, but the original proposal was supposed to require those who did not opt in when registering their vehicle to pay 15.00 for the recreation passport at the State Parks. The whole sales pitch for this was to re-allocate man hours from booths/contact stations to general maintenance and upkeep of park grounds and bathroom buildings. As it stands now, I only opted in the first year for a recreation passport...I will not get it on my registration unless it saves me money.
Tim Arthur
Fri, 07/17/2015 - 4:58pm
We may be headed for the Arizona model, where the state government decided they couldn't afford the state parks anymore, and closed them..
Sat, 07/18/2015 - 6:24am
Why do some parks still charge a daily fee in addition to the passport? Campground in Manistee still charges a fee to come in and use the beach and showers. I thought the passport fee covered this.
Mon, 07/20/2015 - 11:01am
I know for a fact the State Park in Manistee does not charge anything outside a recreation passport for use of day use facilities and shower facilities. Now I believe a shower permit is required in the event that the campground is at max capacity.
Tue, 08/11/2015 - 3:57pm
I would like to know if the business discount "perks" are still current for passport holders? There has never been much publicity on getting passport holders to use these discounts at various businesses. This could be a win-win for us as consumers of recreational merchandise to use our passports and encourage others seeing us get discounts on things we use when we go camping,ect I inquired when shopping at Dunhams and the clerk had never heard of such a thing. Is there a convenient list of businesses that honor the passport registration w/discounts, if it is still in effect?
Thu, 08/04/2016 - 8:40pm
It seems to me that Michigan is trying to get non-residents to fund their parks. I was planning to stay in at least four parks during a trip from Virginia but due to the fees, I am now looking at private campgrounds. Let's see - $31would cover entry into four parks with the annual non-resident pass, another $6 per campground to take our towed RV in, and then $8 per park to reserve a campsite. The passport fees alone would add $13.75 each to a stay in four parks. I can find other less expensive options. Why don't you offer a week or two week deal that includes towed campers? You're Pure Michigan campaign would benefit. Right now I have a sour taste from this and I haven't set foot in the state yet.
Sun, 08/06/2017 - 3:45pm

I can see why they did this and I am glad it is helping but it should have been thought out more. This is the most inconvenient process I have ever encountered. I can not believe how many hoops you have to jump through to try and get into a state park if you did not opt in for the pass at the time of registering your car. I opted out at the time of registration because we got it before and never used it and I told the lady we would just get a day pass if we went. Now we have an unexpected guest coming from Texas and his one request was to go the great lakes. So we are planning a 2 day vacation at lake MI and then wanted to take him to lake Erie. I figured we would just get a day pass when we got to the park only to find out they do not do this anymore, which by the way the people at the secretary of state did NOT tell me when I told them if we wanted to go to a park we would do it that way. I am so incredibly frustrated right now because to go and get it now will cost me an extra 5.00 then I will have to renew it again in 2 months. On top of that is it ONLY for my car which we can use to do the Lake Erie trip but I will be using a different car to do a Lake Mi trip because mine doesn't hold 5 people. So now I will have to pay for a pass for her car as well for one day AND she will have to take a day off work to go get it done. How does any of this make sense?
PLEASE if there is any way to get a day pass let me know or if we can purchase a pass but it is a tag that we can use to maybe hang on the rear view mirror so we can use the 2 different cars let me know.