A budget crisis provides an opportunity for state park officials to be innovative — a lesson I learned as a state government manager, including a stint as chief of Michigan State Parks.

Government bureaucracy is resistant to change and it is almost impossible to employ innovative management strategies as long as money is flowing into government coffers. Government managers are often besieged by special interest groups and unions who have a vested interest in protecting the status quo. State parks should be managed not to placate special interests but instead with a customer-driven focus.

Most state park visitors want a clean and safe environment when they visit and have little concern if workers at the park are state employees, volunteers or contractors. I visited several state parks in Arizona this past winter and observed that they were staffed almost entirely with volunteers. If state officials in Arizona had demanded that the parks be staffed by state employees, the result would have been numerous closed parks.

The response in Michigan by state park officials and legislators to the evaporation of state general fund tax dollars has been largely to increase or change the way state park user fees are collected.  An example is a law passed by the Legislature that allows motorists to opt to pay an extra fee on their vehicle registration in lieu of an annual visitor pass.

State park officials need to take the following actions to ensure the park visitors and taxpayers are getting the most “bang for their buck”:

  • Sell or lease state parks that are not essential.
  • Contract to the private sector certain functions such as janitorial and security when those services can be provided at a cost savings.
  • Extensively recruit and utilize volunteers to take a significant role in running the parks.
  • Maximize revenue opportunities through increased privately operated park concessions.

The time is right for innovation in managing the state parks. Visitors have the right to expect better than the status quo.