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Expedition Detroit's Review of the Michigan DNR's Strategic Plan

As the Michigan Department of Natural Resources finalizes its "Parks and Recreation Division Strategic Plan" for 2023-2027, the Michigan 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 "Michigan DNR") rolls up their sleeves, wades into a half-decade of data, and taps into their collective brainstorming power.


The Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan DNR.


Thankfully, we have an opportunity right now to give back to both support the Michigan DNR while influencing the future of our outdoors. Between now and January 20th, the Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan DNR to consider for their final draft.


Here's our take on the working draft of the Michigan DNR's 5 Year 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan DNR has made a commitment to utilizing public lands towards mitigate those effects. The Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan 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 Michigan DNR employees has grown significantly over the past 5 years due to staffing shortages and increased use of Michigan 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 Michigan 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.

EXPEDITION DETROIT SUGGESTIONS: FURTHER SPECIFY PLANNED OBJECTIVES


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 of Reclaimed Green Space.

As we have all witnessed over the last few decades, the cityscape of the City of Detroit has changed dramatically. Rising skyscrapers downtown and reclaimed lots from previously blighted structures represent the most visible manifestations of a living, evolving, and resurgent city. A great American city. Our city.


The Expedition Detroit team encourages the Michigan DNR to further invest in the future of Detroit through active participation in the reclamation and development of the city's vacant lands. In line with the DNR's goal of preserving Michigan's natural resources, the conservation of such vacant lands via the establishment of new parks and natural areas would permanently protect critical portions of Detroit's growing "open space network," as well as ensure that nature, food systems, and recreational health opportunities are preserved throughout the city.


On a practical level, the successful development of the Detroit Riverfront, William G. Milliken State Park, the Michigan DNR's Outdoor Adventure Center, and the upcoming developments at Ralph Wilson Park, represent recent examples of a long history of vacant land acquisitions turned into beneficial green spaces for outdoor recreation. Looking ahead towards the next five years, we absolutely endorse - and expect - the Michigan DNR to continue this productive, inclusive, and sustainable trend.

2. Expansion of Backpacking Opportunities.

As we have published nearly ad nauseum, our mission involves the creation and acceleration of value for Detroit’s emerging outdoor industry. This mission specifically includes providing guidance for discovering this region’s best outdoor experiences, and as such we have concentrated our research efforts towards a deep dive into every facet of Detroit's outdoor recreation industry.


While our research has uncovered a lifetime's worth of beautiful, awe-inspiring recreational opportunities, there is one specific field where we're sorely lacking: backpacking opportunities. Yes, we have the spectacular Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, Chief Pontiac Trail, and a few other longer trails that we could generously stretch to be considered a bona fide "backpacking trail." But look, let's be honest - backpacking is Detroit's pain point, so let's change the narrative by actively investing in our backpacking resources.


Here's the good news: the Michigan DNR is already deep into the process of developing trail infrastructure that will support the future of Southeast Michigan backpacking. The DNR's forthcoming Iron Belle Trail represents the greatest opportunity to efficiently address this problem, especially since it intersects and corresponds directly with other trail networks like the B2B Trail, Waterloo-Pinckney Trail, North Country National Scenic Trail, and - eventually - the Trans Canada Trail. Put differently, the Michigan DNR has absolutely nailed it when planning the Iron Belle's route across both peninsulas.


There's only one key component that's still missing, and one that I directly posed to a Michigan DNR representative at the Southeast Michigan Regional Trails Summit last month. For the Iron Belle to represent a true "backpacking route," let's say of a North Country or Appalachian Trail caliber, the Michigan DNR must invest further in building or facilitating campground construction for thru hikers. In the current iteration of the Iron Belle's interactive map, accessible campgrounds for backpackers aren't available until Waterloo State Recreation Area. Ultralight be damned, one does not simply walk from Belle Isle to Waterloo in a day... For Michigan to firmly establish itself as the "Trails State," we need more campgrounds for backpackers. Period.

3. Eradication of Oriental Bittersweet.

If you have spent any time hiking in the Detroit region - especially along its outer, western rim - then I'm willing to bet that you've encountered the dangerously invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) vine. If you're not sure what I'm referring to, take a hike through Highland State Recreation Area, Maybury State Park, or really any other state park or recreation area. Honestly, we'd be impressed if you didn't notice acres upon acres of long, interwoven vines, some of which are as thick as tree trunks. These vines are literally and figuratively strangling our region's natural vegetation with boa constrictor efficiency.


Oriental Bittersweet poses several significant risks to our great outdoors and the recreationists that enjoy them. Beyond climbing and overtaking native trees and shrubs, the vines add immense weight to tree canopies, leading to breakage of otherwise secure trees and branches. I kid you not, my buddy's dad nearly lost his life on Opening Day of bow season last fall when an Oriental Bittersweet-strangled tree fell during our mid-day break and crushed his pop-up blind.


Yes, we acknowledge and applaud that the Strategic Plan already addresses the removal of invasive species as a key component of its 5 year agenda. Call us particular, but we simply would like to see Oriental Bittersweet specifically listed as a top public enemy on the DNR's "kill list" for 2023-2027. This shouldn't come as a surprise, either; the Michigan DNR has already published public notices regarding the identification and eradication of the vine, including best practices for its removal.


In other words, Oriental Bittersweet is a dangerously prolific invasive species that the Michigan DNR already knows how to effectively kill. We are simply asking for the department to flex some conservation muscle and release the kraken on this pest.

 

We strongly encourage each of you to also read the entirety of the draft Strategic Plan, as well as provide your own comments to the Michigan DNR via DNR-PRD-Planning@Michigan.gov.


What do you think of our suggestions? Any important ideas or considerations that you would like to add? Let us know in the comments below!

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