In just about every corner of Michigan's state park system, there is evidence of the heavy price of years of deferred maintenance.
Roads and parking lots cry out for patching and resurfacing, buildings need repair or replacement, as do decks, boardwalks and fishing piers. Water and sanitary sewer systems are aging.
According to a 2014 Michigan Department of Natural Resources document, utility and roads systems are failing at Pinckney Recreation Area, Wilderness State Park, Orchard Beach Park and 22 other areas. Designated historic structures are sagging.
The backlog: 602 projects with a total cost of $303.8 million.
Still, as bleak as that sounds, the future of Michigan's parks is brighter today than a decade ago.
“We're in a better place than we were then. But it remains a quest,” said Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreation for the DNR.
Amid a deepening recession and declining state revenues, legislators ended general fund support for state parks in 2003, pulling the plug on approximately $9 million in annual funds. Money for park improvement was further depleted when bond proceeds from the Clean Michigan Initiative and the Recreation Bond Fund expired. Capital spending on parks plummeted from $16 million in fiscal 2003-2004 to $4.8 million, $2.9 million, $1.3 million, $1.3 million, $2.9 million, $1.6 million and $900,000 in the succeeding fiscal years. The DNR effectively halted crucial parks capital improvement projects as it channeled nearly all funding into operations.
Calls for drastic measures
In 2006, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based conservative think tank, floated the idea of selling and privatizing 14 state parks to save money. Russ Harding, a senior policy analyst at the center and former director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality under Gov. John Engler, wrote: “Michigan has acquired many state parks over the years that are not unique in either their natural resources or their historic value.”
Legislators balked, but the decline continued.
Launch of the Recreation Passport in 2010 has helped turn that around, channeling millions of dollars into capital projects as the DNR chips away at the backlog.
In 2011, the Natural Resources Trust Fund reached its $500 million cap on revenue from oil and gas leases, triggering a Constitutional requirement that 50 percent of revenue from these leases go to the State Parks Endowment Fund. That's brought about $20 million more a year to the park system, though it's a volatile revenue stream that can vary widely from year to year.
A 2015 state Senate Fiscal Agency report warned that “planning a budget that relies heavily on just the royalty and lease revenue component of the (State Parks Endowment Fund) is difficult since it is hard to forecast.”
With a budget of about $63 million, about 60 percent of operation, maintenance and capital improvement costs in state parks are funded through the Park Improvement Fund. It is funded chiefly by camping fees, which bring in about $28 million a year and approximately $18 million from Recreation Passport revenues, derived from optional license plate fees of $11 a year.
Olson said he is keenly aware just how much remains to be done. He singled out a couple parks with major needs – adding that he could add a long string of projects just like them.
At Highland Recreation Area in Oakland County, he said, the main park road is crumbling and full of potholes. In places, he said, “it's unfit for access.”
An historic sheep barn within the park that once belonged to the family of Edsel Ford is damaged and deteriorating.
He estimated it would take at least $3.5 million to accomplish both projects.
At P.H. Hoeft State Park northwest of Alpena, the park roadway is crumbling and its electric system is inadequate to meet peak power demands. The price tag for both: About $2 million.
He added: “There are plenty of other projects like those to go around.”