For years, Michigan officials have fretted about the ever-growing list of overdue maintenance needs at their 103 state parks: roads and trails, water and sewer systems, restrooms and electrical infrastructure. All are in dire need of replacement or repair — with a price tag that exceeds a quarter-billion dollars according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“A lot of these parks are coasting on the fumes of the investments we made in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “We’ve had this $264 million millstone around our neck.”
Much of that aging infrastructure was pushed to the limit last year, as the pandemic drove people outdoors in record numbers. Michigan state parks saw 36 million visitors in 2020, up from 27 million in a typical year. State leaders expect that demand to continue.
So when the American Rescue Plan dropped more than $6 billion in federal funds into the state’s coffers this year, state leaders saw a chance to finally fix their parks. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has proposed investing $250 million of the aid into the maintenance backlog at state parks. That’s more than 10 times what the state spends on park infrastructure in an average year. Michigan’s parks budget, for both operations and capital work, is about $100 million annually.
“None of us could have predicted this opportunity to resolve the infrastructure backlog on a much shorter timescale,” Eichinger said. “We’re talking about a quarter of a billion dollars and the ability to correct all of the sins of the past 50, 60, 70 years. We’ve got to take advantage of this moment.”
Michigan isn’t alone. Nearly every state saw a surge in visitors to its state parks during the pandemic, which brought attention to the maintenance and upgrades necessary to deal with the record crowds.
State park leaders say their agencies are among the first to be targeted for budget cuts during tough economic times. Between 2008 and 2019, spending on state park operations fell from $3 billion to $2.5 billion nationwide, according to the Property and Environmental Research Center, a Montana-based free market environmental think tank.
Now, with state budgets suddenly flush with billions of dollars in federal relief and longstanding parks issues getting newfound attention, many governors and lawmakers of both parties are directing massive investments toward their state parks.
“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Lewis Ledford, who heads the North Carolina-based National Association of State Park Directors. “State parks continue to be very much in demand, and virtually all of the states are in a much more favorable light for capital funding considerations.”
In Michigan, Whitmer’s proposal will need approval from the state legislature. State Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee, applauded the push to invest more money in state parks. McBroom would prefer to see the money placed into a park endowment fund to collect interest and pay for parks work over a longer period.
Eichinger said the endowment plan has merit, but the state’s pressing infrastructure needs call for more immediate use of the money. Both leaders said they expect the debate to lead to substantial investments in state parks, in one form or another.
“The federal funding definitely makes this conversation so much easier,” McBroom said.