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.
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.
“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.
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