Michigan DNR to propose closing 23 State Forest Campgrounds

In a press release issued the same day as a meeting to determine their fate, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has announced that the department wants to close 23 under-performing state forest campgrounds in the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.

There are 145 state forest campgrounds in Michigan.

The proposed closures are due to — what else — budget cuts. The state’s Forest Recreation Program has seen a 63-percent decrease in funding in the last three years.

According to the release, the order to close the 23 campgrounds will be submitted as a proposal at today’s Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) meeting in Lansing, and will be eligible for action by DNR Director Rodney Stokes at the NRC’s May 12 meeting in Flint. If approved at the May meeting, the closures would be effective on May 19, 2011. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. today; the State Forest Campground closures is scheduled to be presented at 3 p.m. today.

Mary Dettloff, a spokswoman for the Michigan DNR, told me that state officials were very judicious when selecting which state forest campgrounds should close. Only the ones which were least used were targeted, and she said another criteria was whether other state forest campgrounds were nearby, thus offering campers a viable option.

These parks were so under-used, Dettloff said there’s no chance the state forest campgrounds which are to remain open, as well as the state park campgrounds, would be over-used.

“These state forest campgrounds were developed in the 1920s and 30s,” she said. “Their original purpose was to be a firebreak. But once the land was cleared they became good for camping and people were going their with their tents. But camping habits have changed. These are rustic sites with pit toilets and hand-pumps for water. People now want to be in their pop-ups or motor homes. They want to have amenities, like a pool or a playground, so they either go to our state parks, private parks or some even choose to go to national parks and forests.”

It is very important to note that we’re talking about state forest campgrounds and not state parks. State forest campgrounds are rustic sites with fewer amenities than a state park. They are unstaffed and provide a more rustic, tent camping experience. Every state forest campground is located on a river or lake, and more than 60 campgrounds have nearby pathways for non-motorized trail recreation, such as hiking, biking, horseback riding and nature observation. Accommodations range from five to 50 campsites, with group sites available. All campgrounds have vault toilets and potable water from hand pumps. Some sites are so remote they can only be accessed by a hike through woods or paddling down a river.

General Fund support for state forest recreation programs, such as the state forest campgrounds, has been reduced every year since 2009, when $72,200 was cut. In 2010, $24,100 was cut from the program, and in Fiscal Year 2011, the program is targeted for a $314,700 General Fund reduction.

“While revenue has remained even in the last decade, due to camping fee increases in 2002 and in 2007, state forest campground fees are now at the high end of the market at $15 a night per individual site,” said Cara Boucher, assistant chief of the DNR’s Forest Management Division. “Meanwhile, the number of registrations and campers has steadily dropped over the same period. Given the long-term trend of declining use and the inability to raise camp fee revenues, the only way to absorb the current cut in General Fund support is to close some campgrounds.”

To address the reduced camping demand and insufficient funding to maintain all state forest campgrounds, the DNR will close underutilized campgrounds, Boucher said.

“We will preserve the campgrounds that perform well, and provide a diverse selection for the campers,” Boucher said. “The campgrounds targeted for closure are under-performing and close to other state forest campgrounds, so we can still provide camping opportunities in those areas.”

Currently, the highest-performing state forest campground generates more than $40,000 a year annually in revenue, while the lowest-performing generates just over $300 a year.

The campgrounds targeted for closure are:
— Beaufort and Big Lake state forest campgrounds – Baraga County
— Black Lake Trail Camp – Cheboygan County
— Lime Island State Forest Campground and Cabins and Munuscong River State Forest Campground – Chippewa County
— Manistee River Bridge State Forest Campground – Crawford County
— Deer Lake State Forest Campground – Iron County
— Bray Creek State Forest Campground – Lake County
— Blind Sucker #1, High Bridge, Holland Lake, Natalie and Reed & Green Bridge state forest campgrounds – Luce County
— Black River State Forest Campground – Mackinac County
— Little Wolf Lake State Forest Campground – Montmorency County
— McCollum Lake State Forest Campground – Oscoda County
— Pigeon Bridge and Round Lake state forest campgrounds – Otsego County
— Canoe Lake, Cusino Lake, Mead Creek and South Gemini Lake state forest campgrounds – Schoolcraft County
— Long Lake State Forest Campground – Wexford County

Dettloff said these campgrounds would be permanently closed. However if a local township or county is interested in keeping them open, the DNR would be willing to partner with the municipality in order to make that happen.

To read the informational memo on the state forest campground closures provided to the NRC at the April 7 meeting, go to the NRC’s website at www.michigan.gov/nrc and click on Agendas and Minutes to find the April 7 agenda. To read the memo, click on the box for the order on page two of the agenda.

I admit that I have never camped in a state forest campground, and I understand the state must make budget cuts because the revenue simply is not available. But that doesn’t mean I have to like this. I also question the timing of this release, and the cynic in me insists that budget cuts are not equitable among every state department.

Is this the first step down a slippery slope? Are more recreational opportunities going to be eliminated? Will user fees be increased so dramatically that the cost will be out of reach for many of us?

Ironically, at this very same meeting we are supposed to hear an update on the state’s Recreation Passport program. Instead of spending $24 for an annual motor vehicle permit or boating access permit, Michigan residents are now being asked to support the Recreation Passport with an optional $10 fee when renewing their vehicle registration with the Secretary of State. If only 1 out of every 4 motorists voluntarily choose to purchase a Recreation Passport, $18 million will be generated, which would be $7 million more than the previous system. (Read more about the Recreation passport in a previous post.)

Dettloff said officials will announce at today’s meeting that the Recreation Passport is falling short of its goal of 25 percent participation. She said 20 percent — 1 in 5 people — are buying the $10 Recreation Passport. One reason for this is the fact that there has been no paid advertising campaign to support it — they don’t have the money, Dettloff said. They are hoping social media and word-of-mouth will help spread the news.

So here’s one person spreading the news: Michiganders, buy the Recreation Passport and get your friends and family and co-workers to do the same.

The future of our recreational opportunities, literally, hangs in the balance.