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Timothy Burroughs: Keeping our parks and recreation

By Timothy Burroughs, Columnist
Published February 19, 2013

Like many Midwesterners, my family has a long tradition of vacationing “up north.” Though my drive from St. Louis might be slightly longer than most, spending the summer months on the lakes of Northern Michigan remains one of my favorite memories growing up.

A summer wouldn’t be complete until we finished our annual hike over Sleeping Bear Dunes to swim in Lake Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area. Featuring 65 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, the park was named the Most Beautiful Place in America by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011. The lakeshore, located near Empire and Glen Arbor, Mich. is open year round and features camping, swimming, hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing.

On Monday, the state’s Transportation Department received a $100,000 grant from the federal government to continue the expansion of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a 27-mile, non-motorized trail through the lakeshore. This follows a $1.62 million grant the project was awarded in August of last year. The grant will go toward the $10 million total price tag for the trail, with approximately $5 million coming from local fundraising and $5 million from federal grants. The first four-mile section of the trail opened in June, and construction on the next four miles is scheduled to start this year.

Over the last several years, these federal funds have become increasingly scarce. Near the end of his second term, President George W. Bush imposed a plan to drastically increase national park funding and attack the massive amounts of backlog that had piled up. That plan was frozen shortly into Obama’s presidency in the face of the economic crisis. In a Washington Post article from August 2012, Thomas Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association claimed, “It’s clear that inadequate federal funding is the number one threat to the future of the national parks … we’re at a crossroads of historic importance here.”

The Obama administration’s 2013 budget includes an overall increase in funds for national parks, but still requires that 218 full-time employees be cut. Advocates claim that this budget continues the “bare minimum” approach that has resulted in $11 billion of backlog funding required for park improvements. During this same period, park attendance has continued to increase at a steady rate, earning $12 billion in 2010. Experts are predicting a significant jump in park attendance as they approach the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.

When the federal funds fall short, alleviation for the parks woes often fall back on ‘Friends of … ’ organizations. With assistance from the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail organization, the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes group has held numerous fundraisers to support the project. Though other national parks have similar groups as the dunes, many are not able to cover the lack of funds from the federal government. Organized under the National Park Foundation, these groups raise $150 million annually from private and corporate donations. Impressive, but that’s still only a small part of the system’s $2.6-billion budget.

While alternative energy and increasing miles-per-gallon ratings are grabbing environmental headlines, our parks continue to deteriorate because of insufficient funds. More proactive groups, such as the dunes organizations, are able to continue to improve their facilities, but many others are facing significant neglect. The federal government has an obligation to maintain these parks, and make them accessible to the public. The Heritage Trail project is just one small example of how a reasonable amount of federal funds coupled with private and corporate donations can go a long way.

The United States’ National Park program has a long history of providing citizens with an opportunity to explore and experience nature. It is through this program that we can effectively teach the next generation about the importance of conservation and protecting our environment. The federal government, with the help of the private sector, needs to recommit itself to maintaining our national parks. With added support, we can return these parks to their natural greatness, making them true monuments to America’s beauty and the generosity of her citizens.

Timothy Burroughs can be reached at timburr@umich.edu.


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