Anewly formed partnership involving six outdoor recreation and conservation groups wants to protect and maintain Michigan’s public lands for generations to come.
Through the ProtectMI public awareness campaign that uses social media, the groups want to promote the importance of parks and public lands. They hope to mobilize residents to become advocates or to sign up as “ambassadors” for local and state parks and public lands.
“Part of what we want to do is help people understand the role public lands play in their life,” said Rich Bowman, director of working lands for the Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“Things that we take for granted tend to get taken away from us. We believe that we need to raise the visibility of public lands so we don’t necessarily take it for granted,” Bowman said. “These public lands are fundamental to who we are as a state and who we are as communities, and we’re really just trying to create the mechanisms through this campaign and social media platforms for people to start talking about that and remembering it.”
The Michigan chapter of The Nature Conservancy partnered in forming ProtectMI with the Michigan Recreation and Parks Association, also known as mParks; Michigan United Conservation Clubs; Michigan Environmental Council; Heart of the Lakes; and the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance.
Each organization contributed seed funding for ProtectMI and will support the social media campaign through internal operations, Bowman said.
“What we’re advocating for is greater recognition of and a better understanding of the amazing assets Michigan has to offer. When someone goes outdoors, they don’t stop their enjoyment to think, ‘Gee, I wonder who paid for this and who manages it?’” said Jonathan Jarosz, executive director of Heart of the Lakes, a conservation group out of Bay City. “Most individuals aren’t aware of how their public lands and waters are supported. We want them to enjoy the heck out of our public lands, tell their friends and family how great our state is, and leave with a little better understanding of how it all got there.”
For instance, fees and sales of the Recreation Passport residents can buy when renewing their vehicle registrations primarily fund state parks, not tax dollars, he said.
Raising public awareness of what Michigan and local communities offer extends from the fishing and hunting destinations around the state and the river walkways in many communities like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, to Great Lakes beaches and local neighborhood parks and trails, Bowman said.
The public awareness campaign will target market groups beyond the sportsmen who have historically supported public lands through fishing and hunting licenses fees, which have been dwindling in recent years as demographics change and fewer people participate in those sports.
ProtectMI wants to mobilize more people who use public lands for reasons other than hunting and fishing.
“There are a whole lot of other folks out there who are enjoying using our public lands and waters and we want to be able to activate them long term to be advocates and protectors for those places,” Jarosz said.
ProtectMI’s public awareness campaign also intends to tout the economic impact of the state’s natural resources and assets. A recent announcement on the campaign highlighted data showing the outdoor recreation industry in Michigan drives $26.6 billion annually in consumer spending, and directly supports 232,000 jobs and $7.5 billion in wages and salaries.
Partners behind ProtectMI view their roles as helping prevent conflicts between users of public lands, driving more conservation and stewardship, and developing future leaders to advocate for parks and public lands.
“From a cultural perspective, if those three things aren’t addressed, those are large cultural threats for us,” Jarosz said.
The potential for local community leaders to de-emphasize or ignore parks as they pursue growth and development poses another threat, said Clay Summers, executive director of mParks.
The public parks and amenities a community offers have become a growing lure in economic development, particularly when seeking to draw a younger generation of talent that places a high value on quality of life when choosing where to live and pursue their careers, Summers said. Community leaders need to “not forget what parks bring to their community as they’re looking at building out, they’re looking at strip malls taking up property or buying up land to put the next big development in,” he said.
Ensuring parks are considered as a community grows and develops “should be part of the planning process,” Summers said.
“One of the threats that we see … is as cities and townships and counties are looking at growth, a lot of time they’re forgetting about local community parks being a place that attract talent and attract younger residents who want to find a place to live and then look for work,” he said. “As we advocate from our perspective and as part of this larger picture, we’re talking about (parks) not being forgotten as communities are looking at growth, as they’re looking at business attraction and what those types of opportunities bring from an economic impact standpoint.”
The role of parks also needs to be more of a consideration when community leaders locally are dealing with tight municipal budgets, Bowman said. The same consideration needs to happen at the state level when weighing budget priorities, such as in the present ongoing debate in Lansing over road funding.
Quite often, funding for parks can easily get shuffled backward in those funding arguments, he said.
“It’s easy for people to start to think of parks and public land as kind of a luxury thing or something that maybe is nice to have but it isn’t that important,” Bowman said. “We actually think that that again is the result of not necessarily understanding just what a fundamental role these play in what our communities are. I’m as interested in people valuing public lands as much as they value fixing the damn roads.”