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Michigan’s National Parks: Fraying A Little As Budgets Get Trimmed

Cuts may account for drop in visitors

July 1, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Don Miller

By far the most popular national park in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches along 35 miles of northern Lake Michigan shoreline in Benzie and Leelanau counties.

BEULAH — While running for the presidency in 2000, then Texas Governor George W. Bush pledged to strengthen America’s national park’s, especially by attending to miles of overgrown trails, crumbling historic buildings, leaky sewer systems and other deferred maintenance that was harming visitors’ experiences.

Candidate Bush promised to catch up on the estimated $4.9 billion maintenance backlog at the 384 parks, lakeshores, historical preserves and monuments in the National Park Service system. During his first address to a joint session of Congress in 2001, the President emphasized the point. “As good stewards, we must leave them better than we found them,” said Mr. Bush. 

Vacationers this week are streaming out of the state’s cities and suburbs, many of them heading to Michigan’s national parks — Isle Royale National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore — more parks than any state in the Great Lakes region. When they arrive, visitors will find magnificent and wild fresh water landscapes. They also will meet harried park managers who say stagnant budgets are making it ever harder to maintain the high quality that visitors have come to expect.

Thomas C. Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, an influential parks oversight organization, summed up the problem this way: “This maintenance backlog of road and building projects is only really one component of the total backlog that our national parks face,” he said. “There is a very important and significant backlog of natural resource protection projects as well.”

Declining Budgets and Visitors
That is certainly the situation in Michigan, say park officials. During the last year, Michigan’s three national parks sustained small operating budget cuts of $8,000 to $13,000. While these figures represent less than 1 percent of the three parks’ operating budgets, park service personnel say that such cuts, when combined with inflation and mandatory cost of living increases for staff, have steadily eroded funding available for all park programs. “Every year it stays the same, its’ a cut,” said Phyllis Green, superintendent of Isle Royale National Park, which lies in Lake Superior, a four-hour boat ride from Copper Harbor, Michigan.

Because of the central place national parks hold in America’s recreational culture, every summer their condition attracts the nation’s attention. This summer, though, the state of national parks is drawing even more scrutiny because they are an issue in the presidential campaign.

In 2000, Mr. Bush understood the nation’s loyalty to its parks and focused on helping them fix things that needed fixing. His promise to spend $4.9 billion to resolve the maintenance backlog served to cloak the Republican candidate in a green mantle, which softened his image and made his “compassionate conservatism” credible.

Four years later, the President’s record on improving national parks is mixed. The Bush administration has spent $2.9 billion on national park maintenance, but all but $200 million to $300 million was already in the National Park Service’s budgets before Mr. Bush became president, according to National Park Service testimony during a Congressional hearing last summer.

The maintenance backlog and very tight national park budgets are now hampering the service’s ability to repair infrastructure, hire personnel, and maintain the condition of natural resources in Michigan and nationwide. The deteriorating condition of Michigan’s national parks may be influencing the number of visitors, which declined last year at all three parks after years of steady growth. Moreover, Michigan’s national parks, like other parks in the system, also are affected by pressure from population growth and industrial activities that are closing in on their boundaries.

Industrial plants in Michigan, for instance, release mercury and other pollutants into the air that erode public health, limit visibility, and detract from the enjoyment of the natural environmental.

Ms. Green expressed concern about the industry around Thunder Bay on Lake Superior, near Isle Royale National Park, and particularly about a proposal to build a large coal-powered electricity plant on the Canadian side of the lake. The plant would  release sulfur, mercury and other damaging pollutants into the sensitive Isle Royale ecosystem, she said.

There is virtually no money to respond to such risks in Ms. Green’s budget, which was trimmed by $13,000 last year to $3.24 million.

Making Progress, Losing Ground
By far the most popular national park in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches along 35 miles of northern Lake Michigan shoreline in Benzie and Leelanau counties and covers 71,199 acres of forest, inland lakes, and high freshwater dunes.

In each of the last three years more than 1.1 million people visited Sleeping Bear. Park service personnel have tried to maintain the park’s condition and services with a $3.33 million budget, $9,000 less than last year. The maintenance budget totals $1.29 million and the list of deferred projects numbers 67. Paint peels from restroom walls. Trails are eroding. Dozens of historic structures stand neglected and fixing the entrance to the popular Dune climb to make it safer for visitors is being put off another year.

The park has neither the money nor the staff to complete the work. Sleeping Bear Assistant Superintendent Tom Ulrich said four important staff positions are vacant, including a natural resource manager. Not filling positions immediately, he said, is “one of the ways in which we make sure that we have enough funds to operate.”

Despite an $8,000 budget cut last year, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on the northern coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near Munising, is faring relatively well. There is one staff position vacant at the park and several new projects have been completed, including a $360,000 road paving project, and a new boardwalk.

A proposal to designate approximately 11,000 acres of Pictured Rocks as wilderness also is moving ahead. The designation would protect two lakes and a maple, beech and hemlock forest that is regaining old-growth characteristics after logging operations in the first half of the 20th century. The wilderness also includes an extensive backcountry trail system that has been popular with backpackers and anglers.

Superintendent Karen Gustin told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that this year Pictured Rocks’ base budget is $1.8 million and that until the most recent cuts the budget had been growing steadily. In 1999 the park’s budget was $1.34 million.

An Island Unto Itself
Meanwhile, Isle Royale is struggling to make ends meet. Ms. Green said in an interview that the park needs a new sewer system in order to protect public health and water quality, but does not expect to get one before next year at the very earliest.  Clearly, efforts to reduce the deferred maintenance backlog are insufficient, she said. Even as projects are checked off the list, others are added as tight operating budgets make routine maintenance for natural wear and tear increasingly difficult. “We’ve gotten slightly more accomplished, but we’re losing ground," Ms. Green said.

And Isle Royale is having trouble maintaining its staff, which has not been substantially expanded since the 1960s. Among several positions open at the park is chief of interpretation, a critical position that helps to introduce visitors to the park’s history and natural features. “We’re in the process of converting permanent positions to terms as vacancies occur as attrition occurs,” Ms. Green explained, “I’m changing positions over so that if I have to let people to go I have the ability to do it.”

The staffing shortages inevitably lead to gaps in programming. When asked if any programs have suffered for budgetary reasons, Ms. Green replied, “All of them.” 

Youth education has been scaled back and the natural resource management program is understaffed.  Ms. Green pointed to invasive species, deteriorating air quality and mercury emissions as top environmental concerns for Isle Royale, problems for which little or no money is provided. Combating invasive land and aquatic species is of particular concern as native vegetation, animals, and marine life are choked out by competitors who have no natural predators in Michigan. 

Land Acquisition Not A Priority
One more important park program that has come to a virtual halt in Michigan and nationally is acquiring land for expanding park boundaries. In May, for instance, Congress approved a bill that was signed by President Bush to add 104 acres to Sleeping Bear Dunes as part of an effort to permanently settle a long-running dispute in Leelanau County over environmental protection and development. Congress allocated $1 million for the purchase, which represent 12 percent of the $8.5 million estimated purchase price. No one knows where the balance will come from.

Carolyn Kelly is a student at the University of Chicago and a Jeff Metcalf Fellow serving as a writer on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. This is her first article for the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. Reach her at Carolyn@mlui.org.

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