By Howard Meyerson
While many have put their tents away and others are thinking about storing their RV’s for the winter still others are taking advantage of Michigan’s fall camping season.
State officials say 2013 has been a good year for camping. State forest campground use was up from last year, and state park campers made a very strong showing.
“This year was good,” said Ron Olson, Michigan’s state park chief. “Last summer (2012) was a banner year for us. We hit a million camp nights, a number we hadn’t seen since 2005.
“Staff also said they hadn’t seen so much day-use of our parks in years. This year we are projecting will be about a million (camp nights) again. Our camping season runs through the end of October.”
The recent rise in camping participation may correspond with the weather and an improved economy. It declined in 2008 and 2009, a period defined by economic hardship for many.
“We were down to 860,000 or 870,000 camp nights at the low-end,” Olson said. “Then things started to come back and last year got to where we were in 2005. We’re pleased with the outcome this year even with the weather being less favorable.”
Campers benefit from recreation passport
State park campers got to enjoy some of the benefits that have accrued from the state’s Recreation Passport program. It was put in place a few years ago with the expectation that it would generate additional revenue for the state park system, state forest campgrounds, and local communities through recreation grants.
Those funds helped to build new shower buildings at Holland State Park and at Proud Lake State Recreation Area this year. A variety of improvements are also planned for Warren Dunes State Park, according to Olson. The project funding comes from passport revenues as well as the state park endowment fund. State parks get no general fund tax support.
Passport participation hovers at just over 27 percent, short of Olson’s goal of 30 percent.Most campers buy them with their license plates, but some buy them at the parks each summer. If the weather goes south they may not come out and that can
translate to a passport not sold.
Olson’s team plans to do more aggressive marketing this next fiscal year in addition to continuing the DNR’s Recreation 101 and First-Time Camper programs; each is designed to encourage folks to get outdoors and enjoy the parks.
“July’s cool weather hurt us,” Olson said. “We didn’t have the hot spell and a lot of people who buy passports at the parks didn’t.”
State Forest Campgrounds also improved
Anna Sylvester, the DNR’s northern Michigan field operations section chief for the agency’s Parks and Recreation division, said the passport program helped the formerly strapped state forest recreation program. It operates 130 smaller, rustic campgrounds and 56 non-motorized hiking pathways in state forests.
“Without that (passport revenue) we would have to run the program only on the camping fees and that’s not enough to run the program,” Sylvester said.
Rustic camping fees totaled about $1 million in FY 2013, which ended September 30. The program also received $250,000 in general fund tax revenue, another $400,000 from the sale of scrap and materials and $500,000 in passport revenues for just over $2 million total, she said.
You may recall the state forest campground program was merged with the state park program in the spring of 2012. It had long been underfunded and under-attended to, and on more than one occasion the DNR had moved to close some of them.
New management, a promise of passport funding, and needling from angry legislators and citizens, prompted a full-scale review of the rustic camping program in 2012. The result was a face-lift, more consistent staffing, and a higher public profile.
“Our attendance this year was up, a good thing, Sylvester said. “We added new fire rings, vault toilets and picnic tables to some campgrounds. Those little improvements made a big difference. We also totally rebuilt the Mouth of the Two-Hearted River campground after the Duck Lake fire.
“We have no plans to close any sites; and in fact we plan to open a few that have been closed,” Sylvester said, opting not to identify them yet, but noting that staff are working on a proposal to open five if the resources are available.
Work was also done to fix culverts and bridges along the Jordan River Pathway, the popular 18-mile backpacking loop in Antrim County. Much of the work was completed with the cooperative help of the Friends of the Jordan River pathway.
Accurate trail maps coming
Another exciting development is yet to come: a complete set of GPS-accurate non-motorized trail maps for the 56 pathways. Seasonal staff was hired to walk the trails this summer and log the GPS coordinates. The result, perhaps as early as next spring, will be a set of online maps that hikers will be able to print out with a click of a mouse.
“Hopefully we will have better pathway maps in the future and that’s going to be awesome,” Sylvester said. “People will be able to print them and not have to worry about a DNR office being open. Of course, they can always come by. Any DNR facility will be happy to print the map for them.”
After years of neglect, it is good to see Michigan’s state forest recreation program getting the attention it needs and that new funding for state parks is going to reduce the backlog of maintenance that exists. Add in the possibility of reopening some rustic campgrounds and producing trail maps for those who enjoy hiking and skiing trails and it appears that things are moving in the right direction – a welcome change.
This column appears on MLive Outdoors