Publication Decries Inadequate State Park Resources, But Ignores Major Revenue Streams

Recent changes will see nearly $1 billion earmarked to parks in coming years

In a Sept. 22 Bridge Michigan story about spending on state park operations, reporter Kelly House cites the official in charge of state parks to paint a picture of scant resources available for necessary facility improvements.

But the article ignored a recently approved ballot initiative and spending plan that assures the nearly $1 billion already set aside will be dedicated to cover such spending and will continue to grow.

Bridge Michigan reported: “In the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, the parks generated about $48.7 million in camping and lodging revenue — a $9.1 million increase over pre-pandemic levels. That money pays employees and buys toilet paper and soap for bathrooms — supplies that become costlier with more visitors using facilities. After covering those costs, [parks chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Ron] Olson said, the system has little cushion for bigger capital expenses, like repaving pothole-laden roads and improving bathrooms or other facilities. As a result, Michigan’s state parks have racked up a hefty $264 million deferred maintenance bill.”

But camping and lodging user fee revenue is just a fraction of the money available each year for improving state parks, forests and other state natural resource recreational opportunities. Such spending is popular, and not surprisingly past officials and politicians have set up systems to provide ample funding for it outside of user fees.

The extra money comes from another user of state-owned property, oil and gas drillers who pay royalties on the underground resources they extract. The money goes into two large trust funds, which invest it in ways that generate revenue dedicated for park improvements.

State law prescribes how much of the trust fund’s annual revenue must be reinvested and how much spent on improvements. In 2020, a State Parks Endowment Fund had $350 million in its accounts. In fiscal year 2018-19 the state allocated $24.2 million from the fund, spending $7 million on state park repair and maintenance, $11.4 million on park operations, and $2.8 million on state forest management.

The state also operates a separate Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is used to improve state parks and purchase more park land. The fund manages $743 million in assets and spent $30 million in fiscal year 2019-20.

In 2020 voters approved a state ballot initiative extending the natural resource extraction royalty payments to these trust funds in perpetuity.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.