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Improving a Passport to Michigan’s Parks & Trails

Posted on December 14th, 2018

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In this Trail Talk blog from MichiganTrailMaps.com, Jim DuFresne looks into a last-minute bill in front of our lame-duck legislators that is incredibly important to anybody who loves Michigan’s parks and trails.

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By Jim DuFresne

There is plenty in the current lame duck session in Lansing – from gutting wetland laws and environmental protections to extending the life of an oil pipeline across the Straits of Mackinac – that is angering people and groups across the state. But many of us who love Michigan’s wonderful system of trails and parks are hoping the current state legislators get one thing right before they ride off into the sunset.

Jim DuFresne

We’re hoping they pass the “opt out” bill.

Opt out concerns Michigan’s Recreation Passport Program, which was passed in 2010 to replace the daily or annual park stickers that were issued by the Department of Natural Resources. Modeled after a similar program in Montana, a Recreation Passport, purchased for $11 when people renew their license plate every year, allows access to Michigan’s 103 state park and recreation areas that cover 306,000 acres, boat launches across the state and trailhead parking for more than 900 miles of trails.

Under the old system, Michigan residents were charged $6 for a day visit to a state park or $24 for an annual pass. Today daily passes are no longer available for Michigan residents. Residents that arrive at a state park without a Recreation Passport license plate tab are sold one that sticks on their windshield. Non-residents are charged $9 for daily entrance.

From the first year it was introduced at Secretary of State offices, the Passports were wildly popular and raised far more funds than what DNR officials anticipated.

When they were launched officials calculated that 17 percent of motorists needed to sign up to match revenue under the old system. Nearly 25 percent opted in that first year. That percentage has since climbed to almost 30 percent.

As only the second state in the country to fund parks through optional license plate fees, revenue for Michigan parks and trails jumped from $13.9 million the last year of the sticker system to $29 million from the Recreation Passport Program in 2017.

The program led to a public relations slogan from the DNR of “Check Here Park Here.” Check yes on your license plate renewal form for a Recreation Passport and then Park at hundreds of trailheads, boat launches, recreation areas and state parks.

But what the State Park Citizens’ Advisory Committee recommended when the original program was first being discussed by the legislature was the “opt out” system that Montana utilized rather than the current “opt in” approach that is now in place.

Opt out: Check Here if you absolutely never want to visit a state park.

A hiker crosses a log bridge along the Jordan Valley Pathway.

“We believe that after (almost) 10 years of the public being familiar with the incredible value of the Recreation Passport that it is prudent to return to the original model envisioned by the legislature,” wrote Bob Wilson of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance in a letter to Senator Goeff Hansen. “Citizens of this state are fully aware of the choice that can be made to support the program,”

It may seem insignificant but it’s a huge difference that will raise even more revenue for parks and trails for an agency that always seems starved for revenue.

It’s time to opt out and Lansing is close to passing it. On Thursday the Michigan Senate overwhelmingly passed Senate Bills 1258 and 1259 that covers the issue. Next Tuesday the bills will be eligible for state House action.

If the bills pass the legislature, most observers expect Gov. Rick Snyder, always a friend of parks and trails during his two terms, to sign it into law.

Then an incredibly successful and popular program will be even more so.

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