Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund Boosts Community Outdoor Recreation Projects


Most outdoor enthusiasts in the state are familiar with the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and the role it plays in making outdoor recreation opportunities more plentiful and accessible for everyone.

The Trust Fund (which is funded from the interest earned on a $500 million investment derived from royalties from oil and gas development on state-managed land) is used to buy property and develop projects that have recreational or natural resources value to Michigan citizens.

The principle is simple. Michigan’s natural resources belong to all current and future citizens. When those resources are used or leveraged for financial gain, that effort should also yield benefits for all current and future citizens.

But there’s much more to the Trust Fund story.

The vast majority of projects awarded by the Trust Fund are grants to local units of government that want to develop or improve recreation facilities.

The money is made available to cities, counties, townships and villages through an application process. An applicant is required to secure at least 25 percent of a project’s cost and then submit a proposal to the Department of Natural Resources. DNR staff evaluates each proposal based on several criteria. A scored list is provided to the Trust Fund board, which then recommends the projects that should be funded.

Each year, applications for projects large and small come into the Trust Fund for consideration. The board works hard to ensure that every dollar granted will help make outdoor recreation a reality for an ever wider population of Michigan residents. Trust Fund-supported projects and resources can be found in every county of the state, and that means more outdoor opportunities for the people who call Michigan home.

In the Upper Peninsula, Trust Fund seed dollars are helping local officials realize tremendous gains, both recreationally and economically.

One such grant helped to pay for a community park in Manistique that, according to city manager Sheila Aldrich, “turned an area that was an eyesore into a jewel.”

“We took an old quarry that was grown up in weeds and had a barbed-wire fence around it and we turned it into an area with a swimming beach and two fishing piers,” Aldrich said. “We have a walking path around it and we put in new tennis courts, a basketball court, a baseball field, an archery range and a toboggan hill.”

Aldrich said the $424,000 Trust Fund grant was matched with $150,000 raised by the community, along with plenty of “sweat equity” from local groups. Without the grant, she said, it would “never have happened in a thousand years.”

Residents are so pleased with the community park’s success, Aldrich said the city of Manistique has also applied for a Trust Fund land-acquisition grant for waterfront property. Plans include “a boardwalk area along the river and a campground right on Lake Michigan – all within the city limits,” Aldrich said.

Move a little to the northwest and you’ll find two Munising projects funded by Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grants – projects that city manager Doug Bovin said have made a world of difference.

The city’s Tourist Park Campground on Lake Superior badly needed an upgrade, Bovin explained, and a $227,000 Trust Fund grant helped the city build a new pavilion, restrooms and modern campsites with sewer, water and electrical hook-ups.

The ambitious project also included construction of a footbridge, creating access to an undeveloped section of the park and allowing the creation of a dozen rustic campsites along the Lake Superior shoreline.

The new facilities are an undeniable hit. In the two years since the project was completed, revenue generated to city coffers has quadrupled, Bovin said.

“That’s the only source of money we really have to improve our other parks in the city,” he said. “We have three small parks, and the tourist park is the only way we have to generate funds for those facilities.”

A little more than 10 years ago, the city of Munising used Trust Fund grant money to develop its marina. One of its tenants – Pictured Rocks Cruises – has become almost synonymous with the city.

“There are thousands of people out there every week in the summertime,” Bovin said. “Really, that’s what Munising is known for.”

Bovin said the city is currently seeking another grant to further improve the campground.

“It’s absolutely the right way to go,” he said. “It takes time and effort, but without it, our whole recreational aspect here in Munising would have never been accomplished. And it’s not only the project, but all the other residual benefits that come along with the project.”

Bob Garner, a former member of the Natural Resources Commission, currently chairs the board that oversees Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund expenditures. Garner said it is a responsibility the board takes very seriously.

“Recreational development cannot exceed 25 percent of what the fund has to spend every year,” Garner said. “That’s constitutional. But we have far more requests for the development dollars than we do the acquisition dollars.”

“It’s a very competitive process to get development dollars and it has been for many, many years,” he continued. “We’ve, in fact, responded to that because we used to have a half-million-dollar limit on projects and we’ve reduced down so that we could fund more projects.”

“We’ve done all kinds of projects,” Garner said. “From fishing piers and trail developments and boat launch facilities to athletic fields.”

Sometimes it takes several years for a municipality to get a project approved, Garner said.

Projects are scored on how well they speak to accessibility, demonstrated need, emphasis on resources and other things. Grant coordinators visit all the sites and give preliminary scores, which are returned to applicants – who have an opportunity to provide more information that may help their score. Then, projects are given final scores and rankings.

“I always tell them, as chairman, the old adage, ‘If at first you don’t succeed …,’” Garner said.

“Some years, we have more money,” he said. “Some years, projects that were funded are withdrawn – the municipality doesn’t have the match or they had a change in board members or commissioners and decided to go in a different direction; so that money becomes available.”

Whether you hike a well-developed trail, explore a natural area or sleep under the stars at a scenic campground, it’s easy to spot the results of a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant.

It’s often the everyday amenities and conveniences that go unnoticed, however. Things like safe playground equipment, modern restrooms and accessible walkways at city parks and community centers – these are all made possible through the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Learn more about how the Trust Fund is helping, every year, to provide better access to outdoor recreation opportunities to all Michigan citizens, at www.michigan.gov/dnr-grants.

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