Managing Michigan’s state parks and recreation areas and campgrounds and shelters takes a lot of time and effort under normal circumstances. Add in the unexpected aspects of life with COVID-19 public health and safety concerns – and the steady stream of associated closures and changes – and it gets even more challenging. Through it all, the Department of Natural Resources remains committed to providing excellent customer service and statewide opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors.
Understandably, there have been many questions about proposed facility opening dates and the availability of various amenities. We want to share some behind-the-scenes information about the preparation that goes into opening for the camping season, and why we’ve identified a late June target date.
We know campers are eager to get outdoors during the warmer weather and squeeze in every minute in the woods and under the stars. We share our campers’ passion for Michigan, and we are just as excited to open for the season.
Current staffing levels
Many of the regular duties performed by parks and recreation staff – mowing grass, clearing winter debris, opening bathrooms, hiring and training staff and other park-related duties – are considered nonessential under the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order. That means that staff could not perform those duties until nonessential work again was allowed. After May 15, the DNR began taking steps toward opening campgrounds when the executive order allowed for limited outdoor work and the State of Michigan’s hiring freeze was waived for summer park workers.
Additionally, the DNR, has limited full-time staff per state park and relies heavily on seasonal rangers and 1,300 seasonal park workers to run campgrounds and day-use facilities. The COVID-19 emergency has contributed to layoffs, a hiring freeze and a discretionary spending freeze, all of which puts operational planning further behind than in a normal year.
Approximately 2,900 State of Michigan employees were temporarily laid off across the state, including 102 park staff, including rangers. This has significantly slowed down pre-season work in campgrounds.
Statewide hiring freeze
Due to the State of Michigan’s hiring freeze, seasonal park workers could not be hired and trained until after May 15 whenthe State of Michigan’s hiring freeze was waived for summer park workers. New seasonal applicants will need to be contacted and interviewed. In addition, both new and returning staff need to be drug tested and, since medical facilities are working in limited capacities, it likely will be more time-consuming to complete those tests.
Seasonal rangers and park workers make up the majority of staff, and these employees are the backbone to smooth, successful campground openings across the state. Also, because more time must be spent this year on sanitizing and cleaning, overall there will be fewer seasonal staff handling many more duties.
Seasonal staff training takes time
New staff will be trained on campground and equipment operations, the online reservation computer system, MIOSHA requirements, etc. Additionally, all staff must be thoroughly trained on COVID-19 safety practices.
Drinking water permits
State parks and recreation areas are required to get permits from county health departments to test drinking water. Those health departments are working on COVID-19 testing and other pandemic-related work, so the DNR anticipates water testing and results may take more time than in previous years.
Getting campgrounds ready takes time
Opening campgrounds is much more than saying, “We’re open!” There are many essential duties and preparations that must happen, including de-winterizing, cleaning sites, opening buildings, completing hazardous-tree surveys and trimming, checking electrical systems; getting sanitation systems up and running; rebuilding broken picnic tables and disinfecting public contact surfaces. And these are just a sample of common park staff duties.
Getting park facilities ready takes time
The same park or unit staff is not only responsible for campgrounds, but also for all facilities associated with a state park – state forest campgrounds, trail systems, boating access sites, day-use facilities, swimming beaches, playgrounds, organizational campgrounds, lodging facilities, scenic sites and state harbors. All of these outdoor facilities and spaces require spring maintenance and installation, such as the placement of piers at boating access sites.
Finishing construction projects
A number of construction projects and other improvement projects worked on by full-time rangers were forced to stop in the middle of March. These projects must be completed and/or cleaned up prior to campgrounds opening. In some cases, project completion is essential to turning on electric systems and opening toilet shower buildings and other key amenities.
Phasing in camping works best
Most seasonal rangers and parks staff are trained and working on opening duties before most campers show up. Because campgrounds likely will be full when campgrounds open this year, there’s no possibility of phased-in maintenance work. Instead, most of that work needs to be completed by the time campgrounds open the gates.
There is a State of Michigan spending freeze, so parks staff will need to get permission before making large-scale purchases. The extra time it takes to order and the delay in the delivery of many products may slow the process of getting campgrounds opened.
Implementing COVID-19 regulations
Parks staff will need to implement social distancing regulations, find ways to limit contact, build sneeze guards, etc. – work that is critical in order to make parks and campgrounds accessible and safe for all guests and employees.
Department of Natural Resources