Desperate for money to fix Michigan’s crumbling state parks, officials are gambling that motorists will chip in a little extra cash when renewing their car and truck licenses.
A new system for funding the parks begins Friday, when residents will have the option of paying $10 for a “recreation passport” in addition to their vehicle registration fee. Good for a year, the passport will grant access to all 98 state parks and recreation areas, plus boat launches.
Presently, park visitors are charged $6 per day or $24 for an annual pass.
Starting in 2012, the passport rates will increase annually at the rate of inflation. People who don’t buy a passport when renewing a vehicle license can get one at park entrance gates. But doing so eventually will cost more than getting a passport during license renewal.
Even as the price gradually rises, supporters say the passport will remain a bargain. Their challenge is to get the word out – and win over skeptics inclined to say “no” to any request from government for more money.
“I hope the public stands up and says our parks are important and we’re going to support them through this program,” said Erin McDonough, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which backs the plan.
The passport wouldn’t be offered to out-of-state residents, who still would be assessed $29 a year or $8 per day.
Founded nearly a century ago, the Michigan park system is among the nation’s oldest and largest. But it’s been in the poorhouse for years, a situation made worse in 2004 when it was cut from the general fund budget – state government’s primary checkbook.
Since then, it has relied mostly on entrance and camping fees. They’ve provided just enough for basic operations, creating an ever-growing backlog of repairs and improvements with a combined price tag of about $340 million, said Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.
The system needs $38 million a year for maintenance but can afford just $2 million for “flat-out emergencies” such as fixing broken sewer pumps and washed-out bridges, Olson said.
“A lot of the buildings in our park system were built in the 1940s and ’50s,” he said. “They’re wearing out and unfortunately we can’t take care of them the way we need to.”
Example: Proud Lake Recreation Area in Oakland County, where the campground toilet and shower buildings are so unsightly that some visitors won’t use them, interim supervisor Andrew Haapala said.
“We clean them several times a day, but some of the families don’t want to take their kids in there for a shower,” Haapala said. “They think it’s dirty because it just looks old. The toilets and showers are so outdated, we have to scavenge parts from the other parks when they wear out.”
Even the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the far western Upper Peninsula, which at 60,000 acres is the state’s biggest, has problems. The lone developed campground’s shower house badly needs replacing, said Jim Bradley, president of Friends of the Porkies, a support group.
“The Porkies is no different from other parks in the state. Its infrastructure is falling apart,” Bradley said. “Water, sewer, electrical hookups, building and trail maintenance – it’s the first stuff to go when the money gets tight. It’s not very glamorous, but it’s important.”
Approved by the Legislature last year, the new funding system is based on a plan hatched in Montana – with one big difference. Motorists there automatically pay the fee, unless they opt out. Under the Michigan plan, people won’t be charged unless they check the “yes” box on their renewal form.
Even so, DNRE officials expect roughly 50 percent participation. If owners of half of Michigan’s 7.5 million passenger vehicles pay the $10, it will bring in over $35 million – nearly three times as much as the park system gets now in a typical year from vehicle and boating access fees.
That’s a reasonable expectation if Montana’s experience is any guide, Olson said. About 80 percent of vehicle owners there pay an extra $4 to support parks and fishing sites.
Groups such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, road builders and county road agencies opposed the new system during legislative consideration, fearing it would hamper efforts to raise money for road upgrades. But there appears to be no organized effort to dissuade motorists from taking part.
Still, state officials and park support groups are waging a publicity campaign as the opportunity to enroll draws near.
The secretary of state’s office is inserting information about the recreation passports in license renewal notices mailed to motorists. About 600,000 have been sent thus far, spokeswoman Kelly Chesney said.
The DNRE has a website devoted to the passports and has contacted groups representing park supporters, environmentalists, sportsmen, trail users and tourist businesses, Olson said. A donated, specially decorated recreational vehicle is making the rounds of festival, concerts and other events.
Michigan United Conservation Clubs has been notifying its member clubs and carrying articles in its online newsletter, McDonough said.
Because vehicle licenses are renewed throughout the year, it will take time to determine how well the new system is working.
“Unless you absolutely don’t go to a park at all, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t check that “yes” box on your renewal form,” said Bradley, the Porcupine Mountains backer. “Even if you don’t go, I’m sure you have children or grandchildren or friends who do.”
Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment: http://www.michigan.gov/dnre
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)