Environment Picture

Funding Michigan's natural resources

Trends and future options discussed at annual meeting
At the Michigan Environmental Council’s 2014 annual meeting of member groups, we assembled a panel of experts to tackle one of the most challenging—and least understood—aspects of Michigan’s environmental and natural resource policy arena: funding.

Rather than dive deeply into all the specific budgets of various departments and divisions, we took a different tack, and asked our speakers to think about big trends, philosophies of funding for environmental priorities, and options for the future. To seed the conversation, MEC provided examples of current funding models in place in Michigan. We also explored some of the challenges and opportunities related to each by taking a look at a couple of specific funding sources.

Intended as the start of a longer conversation about funding, these examples and discussion are meant to raise as many questions as they answer. We look forward to more ideas, examples and debate in the year ahead.

Pay-to-play, or user-pay funding models As general fund support from the state has been cut to the bone in recent decades, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has incrementally shifted more programs to a “user-pay” system, in which folks who participate in an outdoor activity foot more of the bill for the staff and resources needed to support it.

An example is snowmobile trail maintenance: There’s a set of mechanisms by which sled riders pay into the system they enjoy, including a certificate of registration, a trail use fee and gas taxes.

Likewise, the recent shift to the Recreation Passport program for admission to state parks, state forest pathways and rustic campgrounds was an attempt to spread the cost of maintaining these facilities across a broader spectrum of outdoor recreationalists. All general fund support of Michigan state parks was eliminated in 2004, meaning the state park system relies almost entirely on fees paid by users, such as camping fees and the Recreation Passport—and increasingly on the State Park Endowment Fund (more on this in our next issue).

Hunters and anglers, perhaps, are the prime example of the pay-to-play model at work in Michigan. They recently supported increases to the fees they pay for hunting and fishing licenses, and also continue to pay a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition that is returned to the state through wildlife and habitat grants under the Pittman-Robertson Act. These fees and taxes raise millions of dollars each year, which all go back to support the management of habitat and opportunities for hunting and fishing.

Who is the non-game wildlife ‘user’?

But on the other end of the spectrum, Michigan’s tiny Non-Game Wildlife Fund is in many ways falling victim to the increasing reliance on pay-to-play funding over general fund support. The non-game fund has a big job—it looks out for the 80 percent of Michigan’s fauna that aren’t hunted or fished, as well as all the threatened and endangered plants.

“[It’s the] only funding source we can use on plants such as the prairie fringed orchid and the dwarf lake iris, which is the state flower,” says DNR’s Dan Kennedy.

And it does it on only five percent of the overall wildlife division’s budget (see table below), which is predominantly focused on management of game species.
2013 Michigan Wildlife Expenditures by Fund
General Fund
Federal (annual)
Federal (competitive)
Revenue from Pittman-Robertson Lands
Other State Funds
Game & Fish
Deer Range Improvement Program
Total 2013 Wildlife Expenditures

And there’s not a clearly identified single constituency—like snowmobilers or deer hunters—to tap for a non-game wildlife program. Who is the constituency of threatened and endangered plants? For biodiversity? It’s a question that came to a head recently, with the passage and veto of Senate Bill 78.

So instead, sources of funding for non-game wildlife programs are small and ad hoc compared to the bigger “user pay” systems. The non-game program subsists on income from sales of the “loon” license plate, a series of collectable patches, and new in 2014, a fundraising dinner. The funds raised through these mechanisms are typically used to match federal dollars to get more bang for the buck. However, the federal funds are competitive annual grants. Trying to operate such an important program without a dependable source of funds and a projected future budget is challenging and inefficient.

There have been, and will likely continue to be, calls for creating a new “pay-to-play” system for hikers, birdwatchers and other appreciators of a healthy, biologically diverse public lands. Currently, there’s no specific mechanism for these “users” to pay into a fund to support their activities.

Public support for threatened native species protection

But is that necessarily the right model for an issue like non-game wildlife? Do we conceive of efforts to ensure the survival of threatened native species—piping plover, the Michigan monkey flower, Drummond’s aster—as the responsibility of a specific “user” group? Or are these efforts more foundational, more appropriately borne by a broad cross-section of the general public?

If Michigan’s native plant and animal species are fundamental to a healthy overall ecosystem—if, as science tells us, they provide resiliency and necessary diversity to maintain the health of all our landscapes and ecosystems—and if the non-game wildlife program hosts the only staff at the state DNR working specifically to protect them, shouldn’t we all “pay-to-play” into that program?

This isn’t necessarily a call to spend more game and fish funding from hunters on non-game wildlife management. We know those folks feel like they are paying a steep price and want to see the impact of the fees they pay on the game species of interest. And we see and understand that there are ancillary benefits to some non-game species from good game habitat management.

But we’d like to think that hunters, along with most of Michigan’s residents, would want to see more than just a healthy deer population, or a lot of grouse habitat. They’d want to make sure that Michigan has a healthy ecosystem that is resilient and diverse. They would also want the programs that protect the whole range of native plants and animals properly funded.
-Brad Garmon
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