(Editor’s Note: More discussion of this subject is available in a subsequent interview with Russ Harding in the Summer 2006 issue of Michigan Privatization Report.)

Michigan’s state park system has expanded into something quite different from what lawmakers envisioned when the system was created in the early part of the 20th century. The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act states that the purpose of the Michigan state parks is to "preserve and protect Michigan’s significant natural and historic resources."

It was not the intent of the original lawmakers to set aside areas as state parks merely as an alternative to outdoor recreation opportunities provided by the private sector. Rather, state parks were intended to be special places representing the best Michigan has to offer in natural and historic resources. Most would agree that parks like Ludington State Park, with its beautiful Lake Michigan beaches, and Porcupine Mountain State Wilderness Park, meet the most original definition of what was supposed to be protected.

However, Michigan has acquired many state parks over the years that are not unique in either their natural resources or their historic value. Michigan’s state park system consists of 97 parks, encompassing 265,000 acres — a far cry from the humble beginnings of the system when D.H. Day and Interlochen, the first two parks, were acquired by the newly created State Parks Commission in 1919.

The state should sell a number of state parks. Returning these parks to private ownership would provide several benefits:

  1. The cash-strapped state would realize a considerable windfall from the sale of these properties, which often contain waterfront and other features prized by private citizens.

  2. The liquidation of these properties would allow state park managers to focus their limited resources on protecting the state’s truly outstanding natural and historic sites.

  3. Taxpayer-subsidized competition with private campgrounds would be reduced significantly.

  4. The privatized properties would be placed back on local tax rolls.

The following parks may be good candidates for private ownership:

  • Aloha State Park, 107 acres. The park provides campers with access to Inland Lakes Waterway, a benefit that could be attractive to the private sector.

  • Baraga State Park, 56 acres. The park is one-quarter mile from Baraga, Mich., making it convenient. It does not provide unique value, however.

  • Dodge #4 State Park, 139 acres. This site does not possess unique characteristics.

  • Hayes State Park. Hayes does contain three lakes, but much of the visitation is due to the park’s proximity to Michigan International Speedway and other tourist attractions.

  • Hoeft State Park, 301 acres. Hoeft is a stopover for visitors to the Mackinac Straits area.

  • Interlochen State Park, 187 acres. Interlochen primarily supports activity at the adjacent National Music Camp. The Music Camp might be a good candidate to operate the park.

  • Mears State Park, 50 acres. Located near Pentwater, Mich., Mears should be sold to the private sector.

  • Muskallonge Lake State Park, 217 acres. The park is northwest of Newberry, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula.

  • Newaygo State Park. Newaygo contains 99 rustic campground sites, but no important or unique natural resources.

  • Otsego Lake State Park, 62 acres.This park is located along Otsego Lake and contains 155 campsites.

  • Straits State Park. Located in St. Ignace, the park is used primarily by campers who visit attractions in the area. This park could be sold to the private sector.

  • Twin Lakes State Park, 175 acres. Twin Lakes is primarily a staging area for campers visiting attractions on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

  • Wetzel State Recreation Area. Wetzel is used primarily by enthusiasts of radio-controlled airplanes.

  • Wilson State Park, 36 acres. Wilson, located in Harrison, Mich., is not very unique.

The sale of any state park will generate political resistance. Park officials will resist a sale simply due to turf protection.

But creating revenue and competing with private campgrounds are not the reasons the state Legislature created the state park system. The system will ultimately be stronger if it is comprised only of parks that represent the most important natural and historic treasures of our state.

Russ Harding is a former chief of Michigan state parks and is senior environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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