MARQUETTE - One way or the other, it appears as though 23 state forest campgrounds targeted for closure by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will remain open at least until the end of September.
"They're not getting closed," said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba. "You can take that to the bank, all 23 are staying open."
In April, a closure plan was announced by the DNR with a director's order decision slated for May 12 by DNR Director Rodney Stokes. Anticipated shutdown of the campgrounds -including 15 in the Upper Peninsula with a total of 189 campsites and six cabins- was set for May 19.
But after some legislative initiative led by Casperson, departmental discussions and comments from the public, the anticipated Stokes decision was postponed for a month so the DNR could explore other options, including co-managing some of the campgrounds with local units of government.
DNR Spokeswoman Debbie Munson-Badini said Friday Stokes is preparing to announce that the DNR has found some creative solutions for keeping the campgrounds open.
"Thursday we will have the final decision," Badini said. "Right now, things are looking really good. The bottom line is it doesn't look like we're going to be closing any (state forest campgrounds) this year."
Under the anticipated decision, Badini said a couple of the campgrounds will be managed as mini-parks by the DNR's Parks and Recreation Division. Last month, the DNR announced the Lime Island State Forest Campground in the eastern U.P. would be kept open and operated by the Parks and Recreation Division.
Badini said roughly a dozen state forest campgrounds would be operated under agreements with local governmental units. She said additional funding has been located to keep the remainder open for this season. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
Badini was not at liberty to divulge which of the campgrounds would fall into which category. She said some of the local agreements were still being finalized.
Last month, Casperson worked with state Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, to allocate money to the campgrounds to keep them open for the current season. Casperson said Gov. Rick Snyder recently vetoed that idea, but supported keeping the campgrounds open with funding located from other sources.
"He didn't like where we took the money from," Casperson said.
Casperson worked to procure the necessary funding with Snyder, Walker and state Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, which Casperson said has now been signed into law.
"These lawmakers have been diligent advocates for their districts and for Michigan tourism dollars in their work to keep these campgrounds open," Snyder said in a news release. "It was a pleasure working with them to make this happen."
Walker thanked the administration and the DNR for working to ensure the campgrounds stay open.
"I am thankful for the cooperation of the governor and the department in securing funding," Walker said in a news release. "For the sake of our residents and the millions of visitors who enjoy the natural wonders Michigan's campgrounds provide, it was critical that this money was safeguarded."
The U.P. state forest campgrounds affected include two in Baraga County, one in Iron County, five in Luce County, one in Mackinac County, two in Chippewa County and four in Schoolcraft County.
Several factors had been cited by DNR officials as reasons to close the campgrounds including a trend in declining use, the inability of the state to reasonably raise nightly camping rates higher and remain competitive and operational costs versus revenue, including substantial cuts in general fund appropriations.
Long-term, Badini said the DNR will look to the lawmakers to provide additional funding, if they really want the campgrounds to remain open. She said members of the pubic interested in keeping the sites open should use them, depositing camping fees in pay pipes, and by purchasing the state's Recreation Passports when vehicle registration's are renewed.
The cost of the passports is $10 each year and provides entry to all of Michigan's state parks, with some of the funding derived from the sales going toward state forest campgrounds.
The idea to involve townships and counties in the management of the campgrounds was initially proposed by Casperson who introduced legislation seeking to have the DNR sell the campgrounds to governmental units for $1, with a provision included the land must be used for public campgrounds or it would revert back to the state.
DNR officials said they preferred a lease option, with the land remaining in the state's control, an idea that had met with some resistance from the local units of government, including that based on the ability of the state to revoke leases once improvements have been made.
Those ideas for long-term solutions are still being considered by lawmakers, the DNR and local governmental units.
Casperson said he thinks the DNR proposed closing the campgrounds in response to budget cuts from the legislature. He said he countered with his legislation, which he said could work to keep the camps open over the long-term.
He said the DNR should not have proposed shutting down the campgrounds as its first option, but instead should have sought the solutions it is now pursuing.
"They should have done this in the beginning," Casperson said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is jpepin@miningjournal. net.