A ballot initiative, asking voters to approve more flexible spending of environmental funding for improving parks, will be on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot.
A group of advocates and business leaders launched a campaign Monday to inform Michigan voters about the initiative, which would impact Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund and the State Park Endowment Fund. Created in 1976, the Natural Resources Trust Fund has helped communities across the state buy land and develop existing parks for decades.
Campaign Manager Becca Maher said the initiative will educate voters on projects the funds have supported and why it’s important to say yes to protecting Michigan’s wildlife. Most of the ballot measure’s changes would impact how the Natural Resources Trust Fund is spent.
“This will create the flexibility needed to fund trails and parks while continuing to prioritize land conservation and protection,” Maher said. “This ballot measure will not increase taxes.”
Under the ballot measure, royalties from oil and gas companies using state land would be used to improve parks across the state. The plan would also eventually lift the $500 million cap it reached in 2011. After the Michigan State Parks Endowment Fund reaches an $800 million cap collected from oil and gas revenue, the proposed changes would divert any future revenue back into the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.
The Michigan Natural Resources Trust emerged as a compromise between business interests and conservation groups as lawmakers debated what to do with revenue from oil and gas pulled from state-owned land. Communities request grant funding from the trust for land acquisition and developing parks.
There is a strict formula the trust follows–at least 25% of the fund’s annual spending goes toward acquiring land and parks and less than 25% is spent on developing outdoor recreation.
Critics of formula say the method of spending the fund is so restrictive the board often declines worthy park development projects.
“A lot of the focus and the purpose and mission of the trust fund is staying the same,” Maher said. “It will continue to (support) trails, playgrounds, state parks, all sorts of things like that. It just allows a little bit more flexibility and an annual basis between which of those is funded.”
State lawmakers agreed to change the Natural Resource’s Trust Fund’s spending method in 2018 so long as 25% is spent on acquiring land and 25% is used for developing parks, splitting the remaining 50% as necessary.
Because the plan would change the Michigan Constitution, voters have the final say on approving it in November.
“As far as the State Parks Endowment Fund, the main change there is that it will require at least 20% of expenditures each fiscal year to use for capital improvements at state parks,” Maher said.
Since it was created, the trust fund has given more than $1.1 billion to land acquisition and park development projects in all 83 Michigan counties, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
In 2018, the trust fund board recommended a total of $26 million in grant funding, including $7.4 million for 34 recreation development and $18.6 million for 30 land acquisition projects. Some of the park development grant recommendations included a $296,000 grant for a Flint River scenic overlook picnic area in Genesee County, $300,000 for development of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and $300,000 for improvements to Roberto Clemente Park in Grand Rapids.
Projects funded by trust fund park development grants around Michigan run the gamut of Michigan outdoor activities, including boat launches, fishing piers, bike paths, basketball courts and trails, said Jon Mayes, recreation grants unit manager for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Sometimes, the development is as simple as installing or renovating existing bathrooms for park-goers.
Conan Smith, of the Michigan Environmental Council, said Michiganders benefit from the Natural Resources Trust fund whether “it’s hiking the Iron Belle Trail, fishing on one of Michigan’s blue-ribbon trout streams or an afternoon with their family on the beautiful Detroit Riverfront.”
Smith said voters will have a chance to expand the impactful work of the fund in November, which has been “instrumental in protecting Michigan’s treasured places.”
Renze Hoeksema, from DTE Energy, said passing the ballot measure is not only important for Michigan’s wildlife but also for its local economy.
“From tourism to construction to hospitality, key sectors of our local economy benefit from the work of the MNRTF in maintaining and protecting our outdoor spaces. Voting yes on this ballot measure will benefit Michiganders across the state – improving our quality of life and strengthening our economy,” Hoeksema said.
More information on the campaign can be found here.