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Opinion: Now is the time to invest in Michigan's parks, outdoor spaces

Public conversation in the last 18 months has rightly focused on health, just as it will at this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island.

Along with discussions of economic recovery and sustainability, racial justice and equity and investing in the health of our people and communities, conference participants will be talking about how important parks are to our well-being and can play a role in advancing each of these critical areas.

Our three organizations are coming together again — as we have throughout the pandemic and beyond — to discuss lessons COVID-19 reinforced about the value of and need for public spaces and outdoor recreation opportunities.

The singular and privileged experience of sitting on a Lake Michigan beach as the sun sets, or a Lake Huron beach at the start of a new day, dipping your toes in Lake St. Clair or taking in a foggy sunrise at Crosswinds Marsh, is something every Michigan resident should be able to enjoy, regardless of background or means. The same is true of lying under the stars, sharing a meal in the open air or lazing in the grass to spot figures in the clouds.

State, regional, county and local parks provide those opportunities to everyone.

More people than ever want to enjoy the rejuvenating power of nature through our public parks. Throughout the pandemic, parks across our state have experienced an unprecedented surge of visitors.

Attendance at state parks increased 30% over the previous year, and current projections are expected to set an all-time record for camping numbers this year. The Huron-Clinton Metroparks have seen a 35% increase in overall visitation at their 13 parks, with some months showing overall usage jump as high as 115%.

That trend has held strong in 2021. The Wayne County Parks system experienced nearly a 30% increase in visitation and a 35% increase at the annual holiday Wayne County Lightfest, setting a 25-year attendance record for that event.

People came to these spaces through the uncertainty of a devastating disease seeking not just social distance but connection — connection to nature, to other people and to themselves. They found the same thing a young Ernest Hemingway found when he returned to Michigan from war to fish for trout in a quiet Upper Peninsula stream: the power of nature to heal body and mind.

Parks support not just physical and mental health; they help advance and bolster our economic health, too. On average, every $1 invested in land conservation leads to $4 in economic benefit, according to recent studies. A pre-pandemic study completed by the Trust for Public Land found the Huron-Clinton Metroparks contributes more than $90 million in direct visitor spending and millions more in other economic, environmental and health benefits each year.

The governor recently announced plans to invest $250 million of federal American Rescue Plan funding into modernizing state parks and trails, and another $150 million of this federal relief funding into a grant program for regional, county and local park infrastructure — all will enhance tourism and boost local economies. We look forward to the details being ironed out by our state policymakers.

We collectively can use these dollars to remove barriers to improve and expand access, update infrastructure to enhance safety and meet growing recreational interests and needs that also meet best practice and accessibility standards. This work would provide a notable return on investment while sparking more opportunity, benefiting all Michigan residents, along with our businesses communities and economies. 

Even in a world captivated by pervasive screens and advancing technology — maybe especially in that world — the simple act of being on a path in the woods or on a swing set in the sunshine is calming and restorative.

Now is the time. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to invest in our health and our communities by investing in the vibrant public spaces that make those experiences possible — from the tip of the Keweenaw in the Upper Peninsula to our southern border cities — and everywhere in between.

Our kids — and their kids — will thank us.

Dan Eichinger is the director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Amy McMillan is the director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and Alicia Bradford is the director of Wayne County Parks.