Clearing the Trail For More Talent

If you have the opportunity to hike, bike, or walk your dog on a trail in southeast Michigan this summer, you likely have state oil and gas revenues to thank for it. 
 
That’s because since 1976, royalties from the sale and lease of state-owned mineral rights have gone to acquire and develop public recreation land in the state of Michigan. In 1984, voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring all oil, gas and other mineral lease and royalty revenue be placed into a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dedicated to acquiring public land and developing public recreation facilities. 
 
The MNRTF program makes grants to local units of government, requiring a 25-percent local match. State agencies are also eligible to receive grants, but the vast majority of the funds are awarded to local units of government, according to Steve DeBrabander, section chief with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
 
“MNRTF really is a local government granting program,” says DeBrabander. “There is a misperception that MNRTF funds the DNR – that’s simply just not the case.  Last year’s projects included 76 total grants, 66 of which went to local units of government. Two years ago, of 99 grants, 88 went to local units of government.”  
 
The program operates under the authority of a five-member Trust Fund Board consisting of the MDNR director and four state residents appointed by the governor.  The board sets funding priorities, reviews grant applications, and makes recommendations for funding to the state legislature. 
 
Southeast Michigan’s iconic regional “rail trails” – trails built on abandoned railroad right-of-way –  like the Dequindre Cut in Detroit, the Macomb Orchard Trail in Macomb County, and the Paint Creek Trail, Clinton River Trail, West Bloomfield Trail  and Polly Ann Trail in Oakland County were all funded with the help of the MNRTF for acquisition of abandoned rail right-of-way and development. 
 
“Oakland County Planning has been working with local communities and non-profit trail groups for over thirty-five years to create a linked network of trails for a variety of users,” says Kristen Wiltfang, senior planner with Oakland County Planning & Economic Development Services. “Without the funding support from the MNRTF, most of the trails in the county would likely not exist today.”  
 
In addition to regional trails, the fund has also played a critical role in local, lesser-known trail connections that link up neighborhoods with regional and community parks, and other assets like downtowns, civic spaces, and waterways that create quality-of-life amenities, according to Nancy Krupiarz, director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.
 
“Without the Trust Fund giving 75 percent toward a project cost, whether it’s acquisition or development, we wouldn’t be able to make a lot of these connections happen,” says Krupiarz.
 
Since its inception, the MNRTF has made 244 grants totaling over $110 million to local governments in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties, with about a third going to trails, according to data provided by the MDNR.  As interest in trails has taken off in recent years, that percentage has increased; since 2000, 56% of grants have gone toward trail acquisition and development, according to the data.
 
“The MNRTF has been the primary funder of trail acquisition and development in the state,” says DeBrabander. “The MNRTF board of trustees made trail projects a top priority, and the result has meant trail projects have scored very well and typically get funded. The board’s other priority is urban projects, so that means urban trails are a very high priority,” he says.
 
And trail development in southeast Michigan stands to benefit even more in coming years despite a shift in priorities driven by 2012 legislation, which capped the amount of land the state can own and required the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to develop a Public Lands Management Strategy to guide the future acquisition and disposition of public lands. 
 
The new strategy demands an economic development-based approach to public land management. Since natural resource-based amenities like trails play an important role in the state’s ability to attract and keep a talented workforce, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s regional Community Leadership Councils were able to help identify how local economic development initiatives can leverage public recreation to attract and retain talent.
 
“The strategy makes the case for the importance of having public land to attract and retain knowledge-based workers,” says Amy Mangus, leader of plan implementation at Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and member of the MNDR’s statewide Public Land Advisory Committee, which oversaw development of the strategy. 
 
“Between trails and public land, we’ll be positively impacted in southeast Michigan because the plan specifically calls for an increase in public land in the region, and MNRTF priorities will now shift toward accomplishing that goal,” she says. 
 
Another new plan, the Michigan Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, also sets an agenda for leveraging trails for economic development through talent attraction. The plan places a priority on trail development over the next four years, and seeks to develop and market Michigan as the “Trail State.”  
 
In March, the governor called for development of a 924-mile “centerpiece” trail connecting Detroit’s Belle Isle with Ironwood, Michigan at the Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula. A Michigan Comprehensive Trails Plan is currently under development to help advance these goals.
 
Despite constitutional protections, legislators and governors have attempted several times (and succeeded prior to the 1984 constitutional amendment) in diverting MNRTF funds from their original intended purpose to pay for other budgetary needs including shortfalls, infrastructure and maintenance.  Earlier this year, a bill was put forth calling for diversion of MNRTF funds to pay for Great Lakes harbor dredging, which was direly needed due to low lake levels.  In April, Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion declaring the MNRTF off-limits for maintenance activities such as harbor dredging. Governor Snyder subsequently appropriated $21 million in emergency dredging funds.
 
Macomb County’s economy is heavily dependent on the recreational boating industry, so harbor dredging was critical.  But the county’s future strategy calls for development of a “blue economy” with trails and outdoor recreation as a centerpiece of that initiative. 
 
“MNRTF has been very beneficial in developing our county trail system,” says Santoro.
 
“The underlying purpose of MNRTF is to acquire and develop park land. Dredging is more of a federal issue, and federal funds should be thoroughly exhausted before we look to local sources of funding like the Trust Fund,” he says.