Recreation areas feel pinch of budget woes

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Capital News Service

LANSING – With the state’s budget in turmoil, some recreation areas are having difficulties staying above water financially.

Such is the case with Michigan’s state parks and campgrounds.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which describes itself as “committed to the conservation, protection, management, accessible use and enjoyment of the state’s natural resources for current and future generations,” runs differently from most state departments, and receives most of its money from fees rather than general tax dollars.

In 2004, the Legislature eliminated state funding for parks.

With the current budget crisis, the department overall is receiving even less general tax support than in past years.

“Our revenues have stayed strong this year, but as the economic conditions continue, we anticipate some reductions in people’s abilities to participate in many of the user fee-based opportunities that we offer,” said Sharon Schafer, the DNR’s chief of budget and support services.

Schafer said insufficient funding has resulted in vacant positions, along with the closing of 12 state forest campgrounds earlier this year. Although the 2009-10 budget is still being finalized, those campgrounds are expected to stay closed next year.

“As positions are vacated, each one is reviewed to ensure the remaining funds are spent on the highest-priority programs,” Schafer said.

Counties in the Lower Peninsula with closed campgrounds are Montmorency, Grand Traverse, Cheboygan, Alpena, Otsego and Oscoda.

In the Upper Peninsula, campgrounds have closed in Marquette, Luce, Mackinac, Dickinson and Chippewa counties.

“We haven’t bottomed out yet,” said Dennis Schornack, executive director of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association. “The state is passing problems down to local levels. And with more cuts coming in the future, we are all feeling the pinch.”

Sports like snowmobiling, hunting and fishing lack funds to support such activities, so further reductions are expected to occur.

The Senate and House are looking for alternative funding for state parks.

Schafer said, “The funds that support the operations of the state parks will have been completely exhausted by Sept. 30, 2010. This means an alternative means to fund the operations and address the backlog of capital improvements and maintenance needs to be identified or we will be faced with program reductions.”

Hunting and fishing license fees haven’t been increased since early 1997, she said.

Although a dozen forests were closed, the future seems brighter for state parks. According to DNR public information officer Mary Dettloff, no parks are expected to close in 2010.

However, she said the parks are running on an insufficient $2 million budget, along with facing more than $100 million in capital needs.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has issued an executive order to merge the DNR with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as of Jan. 17, 2010.

The new organization will be called the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The departments used to be one until 1995, when former Gov. John Engler split the DNR into two entities.

© 2009, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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