Michigan residents flock outdoors during pandemic

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Michiganians are taking to the outdoors at unprecedented rates.

After Michigan state parks took in a record 35 million visitors in 2020, visits were up another 25%-30% in summer 2021, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Belle Isle drew almost 1 in 7 visitors to Michigan state parks in 2020, with 4.9 million visitors, up about 17% from 2019, when it had an estimated 4.2 million visitors.

Robert Nelson, Detroit, takes advantage of the warm weather as he fishes for perch on Belle Isle, with the Detroit skyline in the distance, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021.

Long before there was a pandemic, and long before Belle Isle was a state park, Carol Rhoades, 70, was a regular visitor. Her visits date back to 1976, when she moved to West Village.

In recent years Rhoades found herself dismayed to see the park "commercialized" and paved over for the Detroit Grand Prix.

People walk past the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory on Belle Isle, in Detroit, June 24, 2021.

And many a morning walk near the Scott Fountain has been soundtracked by the "screeching" tires of Detroit police cars doing training exercises, she said. 

Still, Rhoades visits Belle Isle almost daily. Its lures outweigh the factors that have turned the park-goer and many others like her into activists.

"It's a nature park," Rhoades said. "People come here for peace, meditation. People come here to relax. That's what people should feel when they come here." 

And it wasn't just state park visit the swelled, the DNR said. Hunting licenses were up 5% and fishing licenses 10% in 2020 compared to 2019. Use of off-road trails went up 20% in 2020, and went up another 13% in 2021, according to the DNR.

Nick Green, public information officer for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said Michigan's outdoor heritage "is part of who we all are."

"The outdoors in Michigan has something for everyone," Green said. "Whether you want to catch a fish or see a sandhill crane or see a bald eagle; whether you want to visit a lake, a river, a stream or a cave or go ice-climbing, we have it all."

Citing data from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis, the DNR said Michigan is fifth among states for economic impact of boating, sixth for economic impact of RV use, and eighth for economic impact of hunting, shooting and trapping. 

Green said the hunting and fishing numbers are expected to fall for 2021, but remain above 2019 (pre-pandemic) levels.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs was founded in 1937 out of a concern for the overuse of hunting lands and fishing waters. Too much was being taken, too fast, with no time to rebuild, Green said. 

That's no longer the case, he said, and has not been for nearly a century. The money from hunting and fishing licenses funds conservation efforts. 

Hunting and fishing licenses generated $62 million in wildlife conservation funds in 2019, the conservation clubs said in its economic impact study. Upwards of $40 million came from hunting licenses. 

"We're not just takers," Green said of hunters and fishers. "There's this huge misunderstanding that taxes pay for conservation. And that's not the case at all. It's almost exclusively funded by hunter and angler dollars."

By the end of its February trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Detroit Outdoors will have taken about 200 Detroiters to northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula during the pandemic, spanning seven trips.

Program manager Garrett Dempsey, 47, said the barrier that Detroit youth can face to the "healing power of nature" is a lack of familiarity with the outdoors and its tools.

Detroit Outdoors is an effort to teach those skills and give Detroiters exposure to outdoor experiences such as camping, hiking and rock-climbing.

It's a collaboration of Detroit's Department of Parks and Recreation, the Sierra Club and YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, and has been active since 2017.

Dempsey encouraged people to keep an open mind about embracing the outdoors. 

"The outdoors is where we come from as a species," Dempsey said.  "It's still supporting us, even though we've managed to insulate ourselves from it. And it's filled with friends, whether they're plants or animals."

In February, a group of 20 to 30 will go to the Michigan Ice Fest in Munising. The front page of the ice fest's website shows a man climbing the ice-covered face of Pictured Rocks, with Lake Superior below him.

While some climbers will be on the main rock, Detroit Outdoors' crew will take on a more-interior icy rock, Dempsey said.

Years ago, Detroit Outdoors led the renovation and reopening of a campground called Scout Hollow at Detroit's Rouge Park. 

While not a state park, it became, and remains, Detroit's only campground.

More:Work begins to reopen Detroit’s only campground

Green urges experienced nature-lovers to patiently guide newcomers or people who express interest. 

"Everybody starts somewhere," Green said. "Even taking a walk for someone might be a whole new experience to them outside."

And even when there are camping opportunities in their very neighborhood, people may not know about them, or what to do if they find them, Dempsey said. 

"We've talked to so many people that live very close ...  on the west side, and in some cases right across the street from the park, and they had no idea that this little nook in Rouge Park existed," Dempsey said.