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State parks recreation passport was a calculated risk that's been paying off

Sterling State Park is one of Michigan's 103 state parks, overseen by park rangers who have filed a request to carry guns and wear protective gear on the job.
user Dwight Burdette

Just about five years ago, Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation scrapped the long-time window sticker entry system in favor of an annual license plate pass.

Today, that “recreation passport” costs $11, and it grants you access to Michigan’s 98 state parks, recreation areas, and boat launches.

Bridge Magazine writer Ted Roelofs looked into the Passport program to see if it has been a success and what’s still needed for the future of Michigan’s state parks.

DNR Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson referred to the decision to change its admission system as “a calculated risk,” but according to Roelofs it was one that played in their favor.

“They knew they had to get about 17% of people to sign up for this system through the license plate registrations [to break even], and they ended up getting nearly 25% the first year,” Roelofs says. “So they’ve actually brought in new revenue for the state parks because of the success of this system.”

Roelofs tells us that he thinks the new system is easier, sort of a “no muss no fuss” approach, giving people the opportunity to opt in when they renew their license plates.

He says even if you don’t choose to opt in when you renew your plate, you can always just pay the $11 and get a sticker that grants the same access to all 98 of Michigan’s state parks, recreation areas, and boat launches.

Out-of-state visitors are still offered a $9 daily pass.

According to Roelofs, prior to adopting the license plate registration system, the state took in about $13 million per year in park pass revenue, “and it was steady for several years.” Since switching over to the Recreation Passport, that revenue is up to almost $18 million.

That’s a step in the right direction, but Roelofs points out that there are some pretty big expenditures coming down the line for Michigan parks, and that the system already faces more than $300 million in deferred capital improvement projects.

More information about Michigan’s park system and the effects of the recreation passport can be found in Roelofs’ article for Bridge Magazine and by listening to our conversation above.

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