Whitmer Proposes Big Investment in Michigan Parks Amid Longstanding Challenges

Gov. Whitmer wants to use hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief funds to improve Michigan parks. But it won’t solve all their problems.

Michigan’s parks could be getting a glow up.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced last week that she wants to put $150 million in federal relief money toward Michigan’s parks. That’s on top of Whitmer’s previously announced plan to use $250 million in federal money for state parks and trails. So, in total, Whitmer is asking for $400 million be put toward Michigan recreation.

Whitmer called the proposal a “once-in-a-generation chance to improve quality of life for our residents, support local economies and bring people back to Michigan.”

“On average every dollar we invest in land conservation leads to $4 in economic benefit. Investments in parks can uplift communities as we emerge from this pandemic and continue our economic jump-start,” Whitmer said at a recent press conference.

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Now this is a plan that would have to be approved by the GOP-controlled state Legislature. It’s unclear at this point how on board they will be — although Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), the chair of the state Senate Natural Resources Committee, says he’s on board with the concept of spending that money on state parks. McBroom says he just wants to see more details first.

But with the pandemic pushing more people outside and to state and local parks, the repairs are needed. If it’s passed, the state park funds would be used to work on the $264 million backlog of improvements needed for parks, but it doesn’t take care of the entire backlog.

State parks, like other businesses in Michigan, are struggling to hire people. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) started off the season short-staffed. As of May, the DNR said that state parks had only hired about 60% of the 1,400-person workforce that’s usually needed to make sure trails and facilities are maintained and all the services campers, hikers and other recreation-users expect are being provided. That’s another issue that people who are enjoying state parks this summer are experiencing that probably won’t be addressed with these funds. 

“On average every dollar we invest in land conservation leads to $4 in economic benefit. Investments in parks can uplift communities as we emerge from this pandemic and continue our economic jump-start.” –Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

And although that trend is worse now with labor shortages all over the country, the DNR says it has actually been an issue for the last decade or so. That’s partly because they’re only able to pay a little more than minimum wage for most temporary workers, and they expect skilled work. They’re competing with other businesses that offer $14 or $15 an hour, and sometimes even medical insurance. To hire more and better workers, parks simply need more resources to compensate them.

If it turns out that these major staffing problems are a short-term issue caused by this huge re-adjustment as the pandemic begins to recede, that might not be a long-term problem that state lawmakers and the governor need to address. But if it turns out to be a much bigger, long-term problem with staffing, these infrastructure improvements to parks might come with bigger issues about who’s able to maintain our parks.

More from MichMash:

K-12 Schools Budget a Historic Balancing of Funding for All Michigan Schools, Proponents Say

To Fix Labor Shortage, the Service Industry Needs to Start Humanizing Workers, Restaurant Owner Says

Michigan Elections Officials Leaving Jobs in High Numbers Amid Threats, Harassment

Officials Look for Ways to Fix Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System

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  • Cheyna Roth
    Cheyna has interned with Michigan Radio and freelanced for WKAR public radio in Lansing. She's also done some online freelancing and worked on documentary films.
  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.