Wayne County’s Northville Twp has seen a flurry of civic activity around the rebuilding of a barn and petting farm since fire destroyed the facility in February of last year. The "Living Farm" sits on 50 acres in Maybury State Park, and has given children from Southeastern Michigan a venue for learning about the Great Lakes State’s agricultural history for a quarter century.

The fire destroyed most of the petting farm’s animals, which were trapped inside the barn as it was swept by flame. Nearly 50 horses, sheep, pigs and rabbits died in the blaze; only a few donkeys and some chickens survived. Just one month later, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced it would close the farm permanently due to Michigan’s budget woes. Until last year the farm was operated by the state as part of the park. Officials at the DNR couldn’t say exactly how much the farm cost to run because it was part of the overall park budget.

But since the fire, individual donors and businesses have swung into action to help keep the farm open, donating time, money and assets to its reconstruction and improvement. The state still owns the land, but the farm is now operated privately.

"Civil society" is, by definition, that network of private institutions, community associations, schools and religious organizations, families and friends and coworkers, and all their voluntary, from-the-heart interactions. The Northville Community Foundation, which has taken upon itself to oversee reconstruction of the petting farm, generally fits that description. The Foundation is a tax-exempt, nonprofit, autonomous, publicly supported, philanthropic institution, and, according to its web site at http://www.northvillecommunityfoundation.com/pages/937740/index.htm, manages a collection of permanently endowed funds for the long-term benefit of the community. The DNR has offered the Foundation a 15-year lease to operate the petting farm.

Although the Foundation does take public funds, no government money has been used to redevelop and maintain the Living Farm. The Foundation intends to raise $3 million to endow the farm with a stream of revenue for future use. Toward that end, the Foundation held a "Buy a Board" campaign Feb. 12, in which citizens could pay $250 to have their name placed on Maybury’s "Farm Builder’s Board" to be displayed at the new farm. Toll Brothers, Inc., a private homebuilder, has also donated a barn dating from the late 1800s as a gift.

This is not the only experience the DNR has with long-term leases. It is currently negotiating such a lease with a for-profit group to manage the state-owned Porcupine Mountains Downhill Ski Area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The existing contract with the group is expected to save taxpayers $200,000 in 2004.

It is remarkable the degree to which the people and institutions of civil society are willing to fill the void left when government steps aside. And it’s too bad that in the case of Maybury State Park Living Farm, it took a budget crisis to make the state government willing to allow civil society the chance to do what only it does best.

Experience such as Living Farm’s should inspire our state government to hand back to civil society more of the responsibilities government shouldn’t be handling in the first place.

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Note: Michael LaFaive is director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.