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The Expedition Detroit Review of the DNR's 5 Year Strategic Plan

As the Michigan Department of Natural Resources finalizes its "Parks and Recreation Division Strategic Plan" for 2023-2027, the DNR has turned to us - the #TrailsState nation - for feedback. Here's our take on, and suggestions for, the current draft of the Strategic Plan.

Every five years, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (the "DNR") rolls up their sleeves, wades into a half-decade of data, and taps into their collective brainstorming power.

The DNR takes these actions with one singular goal: progress. Progress in terms of improving the protection and preservation of Michigan's natural and cultural resources. Provision of access to outdoor recreation and education resources. Expansion and operation of an inclusive, diverse, and dynamic natural ecosystem. Ensuring the sustainability and viability of our natural resources, so that they will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Since Expedition Detroit's founding, we have sought to partner with the DNR in each of these ambitions. Yes, the sustainability of the Detroit region's outdoor recreation industry is a business interest that we are heavily invested in. Beyond that superficial alignment, however, we also recognize that without the DNR's tireless and often thankless service to Michigan's outdoors - dispersed across 103 state parks, more than 300,000 acres of public land, 140 state forest campgrounds, 13,750 state park campsites, and over 14,430 miles of state-designated trails - the vast majority of our state's wilderness areas and wild experiences would simply not exist. We are collectively indebted beyond measure to the DNR.

Thankfully, we have an opportunity right now to give back to both support the DNR while influencing the future of our outdoors. Between now and January 20th, the DNR has requested for the public to review and comment on its working draft of its Parks and Recreation Division Strategic Plan for 2023-2027, which identifies goals and objectives for the DNR to prioritize over the upcoming five-year period. This "public review" period constitutes one of the final and most important phases of the Strategic Plan's drafting process before funds get allocated, recreational rights get prioritized, and work boots hit the trails.

Don't worry - we have already read through the draft Strategic Plan and will provide a "sparknotes" summary here. We also took the initiative to propose three corresponding suggestions for the DNR to consider for their final draft.

Here's our take on the working draft of the DNR's Strategic Plan:

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Actions Aimed at Tackling Pandemic and Climate Change Challenges

Friends, we have some good news and bad news for you. Always starting with the bad, if you clicked on this article hoping for a fiery evisceration or hostile takedown of the DNR's planned operations, then this is not the article for you. Sorry (but not really).

That leaves us with the good news: we couldn't be more excited to endorse the operations and key objectives that the DNR has proposed for the upcoming 5 years. Especially given the 30% increase in visitor traffic that our state lands have experienced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the DNR has recognized the momentous responsibility on its shoulders resulting from unprecedented recreational interest throughout our state. While this historic uptick in outdoor recreation has generated $26.6 billion for our state's tourism industry, the tidal wave of visitors has exacerbated management and staffing issues, strained environmental sustainability safeguards, and brought underlying fundamental issues like infrastructure maintenance and stakeholder inclusion to the foreground.

In light of the changes and challenges experienced during the pandemic-era, here are the six primary issues (presented without priority) that the DNR has identified for addressing during the next 5 years:

1. Continued Recreation and Resource Conservation. The DNR's facilities continue to experience higher visitation, resulting in greater resource impacts and demands to expand traditional recreation endeavors, as well as developing innovative recreation opportunities. Combating forest health issues, such as emerald ash borer, oak wilt and hemlock wooly adelgid, in addition to other invasive species, will also remain a top priority for the longevity of Michigan's state parks.

2. Environmental Sustainability. The effects of climate change remain a potent threat to Michigan's ecosystem, and the DNR has made a commitment to utilizing public lands towards mitigate those effects. The DNR will install renewable energy systems to reduce its carbon footprint, add electric vehicle charging stations at state parks and marinas, increase the use of electric equipment at its facilities, and expand and promote waste reduction and recycling programs.

3. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. In line with the greater outdoor recreation industry, the DNR will remain committed to fostering and promoting an environment focused on equity and inclusion to expand and broaden the diversity of its visitors and workforce. Continued review of the DNR's operations and facilities will identify where improvements are required to ensure the provision of acceptable service to all visitors, regardless of ability, ethnic background, and location.

4. Funding. While the $250 million in funding from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act will benefit a significant portion of the state parks’ infrastructure needs, the DNR anticipates that sustained inflation, raw material shortages, and implementing many large projects - in less than five years - will trigger additional fiscal challenges.

5. Management and Administration. The DNR administrative challenges have included updating policies and procedures to meet changing needs, keeping pace with essential technology advances, and responding to political and public pressures. The DNR will aim to improve its operational efficiencies through forming strategic partnerships, enhanced data management capacity, improved technology, and refining its general business practices.

6. Staffing. Occupational pressure on DNR employees has grown significantly over the past 5 years due to staffing shortages and increased use of DNR facilities brought on by unprecedented recreational usage, both of which were spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To summarize, the DNR is aiming to utilize the next five years towards rectifying, improving, and preventing the challenges faced during the last five years - and especially during the peak pandemic era. As we're all painfully aware, the changes that occurred across the country during 2020 brought several endemic political, societal, and economic issues to light. Conversely, the pandemic also shone a spotlight on the value of outdoor recreation, both in terms of its economic and social benefits.

These six goals reflect the DNR's acceptance that its management, staffing, resource allocation, environmental sustainability, and social equity initiatives require significant further development and investment in order to surpass recent challenges. We applaud the DNR for the prioritization of these goals...but we also think that even more specificity should be included.

Especially for the benefit of the Detroit region.


Out of the DNR's six stated objectives, the only one that we thought could and should be further refined is #1: to preserve, protect, maintain and restore Michigan’s natural and cultural resources on DNR-administered lands. Don't get us wrong, this goal by itself is fantastic. However, after reading - and re-reading - the draft Strategic Plan, we found the lack of specificity on clear objectives to be underwhelming.

In light of this sole critique (and to avoid any accusations of hypocrisy), here are three specific suggestions that we propose for inclusion in the final Strategic Plan:

1. Acquisition and Preservation