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.
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.”