More Michiganders than ever are visiting state parks.
Normally, that would be a good thing. But in the era of COVID-19, there’s a staffing shortage because of a state-mandated freeze on hiring earlier in the year and, now that the freeze has ended, officials are trying to get the parks fully staffed to meet the surge in attendance.
Click on the player above to hear Michigan DNR’s Ron Olson on how state parks are coping with a surge in visitation.
Ron Olson is the Chief of Parks and Recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says that in addition to more day-use visitors, there are also more people staying overnight in Michigan parks. “Our numbers on camping and lodging are up 15 percent, every indication is pointing to the fact that we have a very strong usership, it’s been strong since April,” says Olson.
Volunteers “can’t do normal work. In general our staff will just have to adapt and adjust.” — Ron Olson, Michigan DNR
The state-ordered hiring freeze meant the State Parks department couldn’t staff up for the summer, depriving parks of nearly 1,500 seasonal employees. When that freeze was lifted in May, Olson says they were able to start hiring workers, but many are college students who will leave for school by mid August.
“Right now, we’re about 84 percent of the summer staff were hired,” says Olson, but he expects that number will begin to dwindle in the coming days.
Looking ahead to the fall and winter, Olson is trying to remain optimistic.
“We are going to do our best, our staff are very committed,” he says, pointing to contract workers and volunteer groups as potential sources of support.
Still, Olson says this help comes with limitations. The volunteers “can’t do normal work, but they can help us with certain things. In general our staff will just have to adapt and adjust,” he says.
Construction projects are another point of concern at parks throughout the state. Olson explains that several projects at a handful of parks were underway earlier this year and when the pandemic came, everything had to be put on pause.
Belle Isle closings, flood control
Locally, Belle Isle is a park that serves as an example of the added pressures put on public spaces amid the pandemic.
“Belle isle is unique because it gets strong visitation, but we close the park due to the filling of parking spots to keep the roadways and bike lanes and everything safe,” Olson says.
“It’s been quite a combination with the high water, high attendance, all the COVID protocols and restrictions — almost like a perfect storm.”
Park officials have closed the park “very regularly most Saturdays and Sundays” because it gets too crowded and issues of safety and parking availability arise. As far as halted projects, Olson says the roadways on the east end of the park have been flooded, but recently the state finished installing a dam that pumps water out of canal, which has led to water levels dropping in the canal by about a foot.
“It’s been quite a combination with the high water, high attendance, all the COVID protocols and restrictions — almost like a perfect storm that came into effect. But the good news is the public want to go out and enjoy themselves and get outdoors,” says Olson.