April 23, 2009 at 1:00 am

Michigan's state parks

Crumbling state parks threaten tourism

Mich. needs $341M for 200 repair projects

Becky Boyd, left, and Alexis Onyskin, both of Ypsilanti, cast lines off a sinking pier on Crooked Lake at Waterloo Recreation Area. (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)

Lansing -- Michigan's still-proud park system is sliding into disrepair, a casualty of state budget cuts, eroding attendance and vanishing funding sources.

Unless reversed, the decline threatens to turn away visitors and close some of the parks. That would endanger not only the state's quality of life and economic development, but also tourism, one of the state's leading industries.

One estimate is that half of the state parks and recreation facilities are in bad condition. The Department of Natural Resources has more than 200 infrastructure projects that would cost a total of $341 million and only $2 million earmarked annually to make emergency repairs to deteriorating facilities.

Some say that without new funding or higher fees, the problem won't be fixed soon.

As the weather turns warmer and visitors begin to flock to the beaches along Lake Michigan in Holland State Park or spend nights under the stars at secluded campgrounds at Craig Lake State Park in the Upper Peninsula, they'll find much to enjoy. But, increasingly, they'll notice problems throughout the 98-park system including:

  • Crumbling buildings. The roof on the visitors center at popular Ludington State Park has collapsed, a victim of neglect and a harsh winter. The cost for replacement is $500,000.

  • Bridges in disrepair and nearly impassable roads. A flood-damaged concrete bridge at Warren Dunes State Park in the southwest corner of the state is closed to vehicles, forcing beachgoers to hike a mile to the park's beach.

  • River and lake erosion. The storied Tahquamenon Falls State Park has experienced shoreline erosion in camping areas.

  • Limited access to water. Rickety piers greet fishing enthusiasts at the scenic Rifle River Recreation Area.

  • Outdated electrical wiring and faulty toilet and shower facilities. The water system at Ludington State Park, installed in the 1940s, has frequent problems.

    And because money is running out, only emergency repairs are being made. Officials don't expect the list of repair projects to be addressed in the near future.

    The state takes in $52.6 million in revenues for the parks. Officials say $90 million a year would be an optimal budget, but a minimum of $70 million a year would be required to do an adequate job. Park officials have requested federal stimulus money to make some repairs, but were told that no money would be available.

    An 'underinvested' resource

    Lou Ridder, an avid outdoorsman from Washtenaw County's Scio Township, has noticed a steady decline in the amenities at some of the parks he frequents in southeast Michigan.

    "As a general rule, they're in pretty shabby condition," he said. "Roads and bathrooms are in bad shape. We have underinvested in this core natural resource."

    Sen. Patty Birkholz, a key player in the parks debate, agreed.

    "The condition of our parks is embarrassing at best and abysmal at worst," said Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. "If we don't do something, there will be closures of some of our state parks."

    The enormity of the problem is summed up by Tony Herek, financial manager for the state parks: "Our asset value is over $1 billion ... and half of that is in poor condition."

    Alfred Carl, an RV camper from Warren, has noticed that the beach at Sleepy Hollow State Park north of Lansing is in poor condition.

    "The state is doing a good job, but it's getting harder and harder to keep up," Carl said.

    Michigan is not alone -- state parks across the country are facing funding shortfalls. New York's Legislature recently cut the parks budget by $28 million to $172 million; Georgia legislators trimmed $10 million from the $27 million budget for their parks; Idaho is considering slashing its park funding by more than half from $16 million to $7 million; and Nevada pared its parks budget by 21 percent or $3.2 million.

    Many ideas, few solutions

    In 2004, the state ended all general fund support for the parks as a budget-cutting measure -- the only state to do so. A trust fund, approved by voters in 1994 to meet long-term infrastructure needs, is instead being tapped for operations and is nearly depleted.

    The parks rely mainly on daily and annual permits and camping fees. But attendance slipped to 21.2 million last year, a drop of 24 percent since 1999, cutting into the revenue needed to run the system. Camping reservations so far this year are down by nearly 5 percent, from 392,480 camp nights at this point last year to 374,111 this year. The dwindling numbers are due partly to the condition of the parks, but also to fluctuating gas prices, the battered economy and other factors, officials said.

    "It's not a sustainable format," said Ron Olson, chief of the Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division.

    Even though many would concur with Olson, there's no agreement on how to fix it.

    Birkholz and others are pushing a plan to tack a $10 opt-out fee onto every vehicle registration as a replacement for vehicle permit fees. That plan would raise an additional $18 million a year, on top of revenue generated by the parks.

    Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed an increase in the per-car annual charge from $24 to $28 and daily charge from $6 to $7 that would raise $1.9 million.

    Russ Harding, former head of the state Department of Environmental Quality, espouses privatizing some parks and park services.

    Even with the funding issues, Granholm has no plans to close parks, as some fear might happen if the shortfall worsens, said her spokeswoman, Liz Boyd.

    "The governor understands the parks are showing their age," she said. "We have one of the largest park systems in the country, and the infrastructure needs repairs."

    Boyd said, "There is not a good business model for privatizing parks," but added Granholm remains open to "pursuing corporate sponsorships and private lodging options" at the parks.

    One of the biggest concerns in park lands is road repairs because they are not covered by state and federal transportation budgets, said Harold Herta, chief of resource management for the DNR. Road fixes compete with other needs in the parks budget, and they are losing the battle, he said.

    "You can't see the forest if you're dodging potholes," Herta said.

    Tourism, parks intertwined

    Michigan's 90-year-old park system is seen as a top tourist attraction, drawing 21 million visitors a year. By comparison, Mackinac Island attracts nearly 1 million visitors a year, and 3.2 million fans attended Detroit Tigers baseball games last year.

    "Michigan state parks are still among the best in the country, and to see them deteriorate because of a lack of money is disturbing," said Bill Sheffer, director of the Michigan Association of Recreational Vehicles and Campgrounds.

    The tourism industry leans heavily on state parks, said Travel Michigan Director George Zimmermann. Resort communities, especially in northern Michigan, rely on the parks as tourism anchors and would be crippled by closures, he said. Visitors to the parks buy entertainment, gas, food and other supplies at local businesses.

    "The state parks are essential to tourism in Michigan," Zimmerman said. "It would be a tragedy if they are allowed to go into disrepair or if some parks are closed. You'd not only have a loss of that product, but you'd also send a terrible message that Michigan is closing up."

    Olson said a strong park system is attractive to companies looking at quality of life issues as they decide where to locate.

    "We need to fix up places, make them shine," he said. "Nobody wants a decrepit place when using valuable leisure time."

    mhornbeck@detnews.com">mhornbeck@detnews.com (313) 222-2470

  • The roof of the visitors center at Ludington State Park has fallen in. ... (the Department of Natural Resources)
    Seasonal flooding caused the weakening and eventual collapse of this ...
    Repairs are needed for more than 15 cabins at Waterloo Recreation Area. ...