MARQUETTE - Michigan lawmakers are defending the state's national parks in the wake of a report released by an Oklahoma senator criticizing Isle Royale National Park and the Keweenaw National Historical Park among places where spending is misplaced and costly.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, recently issued his 208-page report, "Parked! How Congress' Misplaced Priorities Are Trashing Our National Treasures."
In a news release, Coburn said the report "documents how members of Congress have used the park service to advance parochial interests while ignoring billions in maintenance backlog at our nation's most prized national parks, and outlines areas of low priority and wasteful spending by the park service."
The Rock Harbor Lighthouse is shown at Isle Royale National Park. In a recent report on government spending for national parks, Isle Royale and the Keweenaw National Historical Park in Houghton County were criticized by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, as places costly to the government and unjustified to be included in the national park system. (Journal file photo)
While all five of Michigan's national park units are mentioned in the report, Coburn focused most sharply on Isle Royale and Keweenaw parks, with some additional criticism leveled at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore downstate.
Coburn said Isle Royale attracts almost 100 times fewer visitors each year than Sleeping Bear Dunes, while both parks have roughly the same $4.3 million annual budget.
"Only accessible by four ferries and a seaplane, this 42-mile-long island in the middle of Lake Superior is home to the least visited national park in the continental United States," the report said.
Coburn said the Isle Royale budget pays for 55 full-time employees.
"These 55 full-time employees outnumber the 44 average daily visitors that come to the island," the report said.
The park, which was created in 1931, had a $19.6 million maintenance backlog in 2012. A total of 16,746 visitors came to Isle Royale last year.
Coburn knocked the $120 round-trip ferry cost to reach the island. He also suggested a $174,000 park service grant to document underwater natural and cultural features in three-dimensional high-definition at park units including Isle Royale and the Pearl Harbor National Historic Site could have been better spent fixing degenerated park structures.
Coburn questioned establishing Isle Royale.
"Michigan residents yearning to protect this remote island in Lake Superior from resource development may have been a noble cause," Coburn wrote. "but doing so through its inclusion in the national park system carried a steep price for taxpayers."
Coburn quotes former National Park Service Director James Ridenour as saying Congress "added another slab of pork to the parks" in establishing the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
Coburn said Ridenour questioned whether the park was "sufficiently nationally significant to warrant park status." Ridenour was also concerned the National Park Service could be forced to spend millions of dollars to clean up a lake filled with old mine tailings.
"The Keweenaw National Historical Park on Michigan's Upper Peninsula was pushed by a powerful senator to revitalize an area left in decay after collapse of the copper boom by attracting tourists and federal dollars," Coburn wrote.
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, championed efforts to establish the park, which was created in 1992. The report said the park had a $10.8 million maintenance backlog in 2012.
"While it is difficult to determine whether making it a unit of the National Park Service achieved the goal of economic revitalization by drawing tourists, since the number of visitors are not counted, what is certain is the area has moved from mining copper to mining federal largess, extracting $1.5 million from the National Park Service budget every year to support its operating costs," Coburn wrote.
Levin and state 110th District Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, defended Isle Royale and the Keweenaw park. The parks are situated in Houghton and Keweenaw counties.
"Preserving natural treasures including our wilderness areas and our important cultural legacies isn't a mistake. It's right at the heart of our national park system's mission and of who we are as a people," Levin said. "Sen. Coburn's suggestion that Isle Royale National Park and Keweenaw National Historical Park aren't worthy of preservation for future generations is way off target, and I'd love to have him join me on one of my trips to our parks so that he can see their value for himself."
Dianda was also willing to give Coburn a park tour.
"On behalf of Mother Nature, I would like to apologize to Sen. Coburn," Dianda said in a news release. "It is clear that growing up in a place like Oklahoma has robbed the senator of any ability to imagine the natural rugged beauty of Isle Royale and the Keweenaw. Had he been exposed to natural beauty at a younger age, maybe he would understand its importance."
Dianda derided Coburn's premise that the $11.5 billion national park maintenance backlog has been caused by financially supporting misplaced priorities and that funding should instead be directed to "parks and memorials with true national significance."
Dianda said the Keweenaw Peninsula was at one time the nation's largest supplier of copper, and played an enormous role in the country's industrialization and electrification. He said the park service has worked to preserve historic industrial and cultural sites associated with the mining boom, and to tell the story of the immigrants who came from more than 30 countries to work in the mining industry. The Keweenaw also has geographic significance as the site of the oldest and largest lava flow on Earth, Dianda said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, also defended the value of the parks.
"Michigan's national parks like Isle Royale and Keweenaw Historical Park are unique 'Pure Michigan' treasures that bring tourists to our state and generate millions of dollars in economic growth, in the U.P. and across the state," Stabenow said. "Their unique characteristics and strong economic impact justify protection through our national park system, just as our national parks in other states must be preserved."
U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said being a lifelong Yooper he knows the national parks are "critically important to our economy and our way of life up here in the U.P."
"In fact, outdoor recreation generates over $18 billion in consumer spending in Michigan and accounts for 194,000 jobs in the state. Preserving these very special places in the U.P. is not a waste," Benishek said. "We need to ensure the beauty of Isle Royale and the history of the Copper Country is available for our children and grandchildren to enjoy forever."
Coburn's report did not comment on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Alger County, which had a $2.6 million budget last year and logged 615,485 visitors. A maintenance backlog of $5.5 million was logged at Pictured Rocks in 2012.
As the nation's first national lakeshore, the park unit was created in 1966.
However, Coburn did criticize the park service for allotting $5.2 million toward the purchase of 37 acres at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which was established along the Lake Michigan shoreline downstate in 1970.
Coburn said the park service will spend $142,000 an acre at the park in an effort to minimize or eliminate various impacts or threats including the razing of small houses to construct large "trophy homes." The park service will need an additional $9.2 million to complete the effort.
Sleeping Bear Dunes had 1.6 million visitors last year, a budget of $4.3 million and a maintenance backlog of $16.7 million.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park downstate was created in 2009. The park, which commemorates the Battles of Frenchtown during the War of 1812, had 52,027 visitors in 2012, a budget of $294,000 and a maintenance backlog of $875,553.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com