By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service
LANSING –A proposal to bring wireless Internet service to state parks to boost tourism appears far from certain.
Agriculture Director Keith Creagh said broadband service can promote agri-tourism to golf courses, fishing docks and state parks, but the head of the state parks division of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) said a pilot program at a limited number of parks proved too expensive.
Creagh said Agriculture and DNRE may try different approaches to enhance agri-tourism and state park use by offering more up-to-date technology and making Michigan more attractive to a variety of campers.
In 2004, the state piloted wireless Internet service at eight of its 97 state parks: East Tawas, Holland, Grand Haven, Ludington, Charles Mears, Mackinac Island, Traverse City and Van Riper, as well as several state harbors, welcome centers and transportation centers.
Internet is still available for a fee at central locations, near concessions and headquarters, at those parks.
The original contract allowed campers free access to Michigan.gov, the official state government website, but browsing other sites costs $7.95 for a 24-hour session, according to the Department of Transportation.
The DNRE said Michigan was the first state to introduce wireless to parks.
Harold Herta, the DRNE chief of parks and recreation resource management, said, “It was an experiment that never really took off. It wasn’t too successful because hotels and coffee shops nearby offered free Internet.”
Herta said the pilot program wasn’t popular because many park-goers can pick up some sort of access from nearby cell towers.
Therefore, they don’t want to pay for an extra service they view as an amenity, he said.
The Internet contract has expired, but parks are still able to provide access.
The Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB) would operate the wireless revival or expansion, Herta said.
The possibility of rejuvenating the wireless experiment raises questions beyond money, compatibility and visitor demand.
Herta pointed to complaints and skeptical editorials about the pilot program. Critics contended that Internet use defeats the purpose of a relaxing park vacation. Questions arose about visitors spending time on iPads and laptops to watch Netflix, instead of hiking trails and appreciating wildlife.
On the flip side, Herta said campers enjoyed the fact that they could enhance their park experience, make reservations on their computers and phones, keep up with e-mails and receive weather updates.
Herta said it was too expensive because too few campers took advantage of the Internet.
If the state tried wireless again, it would need to be free for campers he said.
Gail Vander Stoep, a tourism expert at Michigan State University, said, “It’s a complex issue because wireless is ubiquitous– an expected kind of service– but others argue part of the reason why people use state parks is for reflection, rejuvenation and to get away from those kinds of regular demands.”
In addition, Vander Stoep said there are serious practical issues.
“Some parks are in more rural places and others are remote. Some parks are more natural and primitive, and others are near urban recreational areas for quick-in-quick-out experiences.”
There are logistical challenges, and consistency may be challenging, she said.
Kurt Weiss, the Technology, Management and Budget public information officer, said the rejuvenation is in the early stages, since his department has not been contacted about possible expansion.
Jennifer Holton, Department of Agriculture public information officer, said if departments partner to develop a holistic approach in agri-tourism, they can align opportunities and enhance state parks.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
By KATHLEEN LOFTUS