Ari had an opportunity to interview Keith Creagh, former Director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. That’s the state department that oversees a lot of things, including the operation of state parks. You can watch the entire interview on our YouTube channel.
Below is the full transcript of the interview. We’ve also included a number of links where you can get more information about the places Keith and Ari talk about.
ARI: You were director of the Department of Natural Resources for how long?
KEITH: For about seven years — just under seven years. I was with the governor for eight years; I came as Ag (Department of Agriculture) director and then I went to DNR. I spent a little time at DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) but I spent most of my time as DNR director.
ARI: And give everybody a little taste of what it’s like being a DNR director — what specifically does the DNR see? And it’s really hard to say specifically, right? Because it’s one of the departments that has such a broad range of activities that it takes on.
KEITH: Well it does touch every person every day and it’s actually the best job in state government. Because we have world-class natural resources and if you look at the Great Lakes and 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, more coastline than any other state for freshwater — over 3,200 miles of it — you look at 11,000 lakes. I mean those are just the things that people are aware of generally speaking.
But if you look at the 4.6 million acres of land that we have the privilege of managing, the 103 state parks, it’s a very broad portfolio of issues. Whether it’s fish and game, whether it’s parks and recreation; whether it’s trails; whether it’s law enforcement, minerals management, timber harvesting — and so what we do every day does have an impact on the people and the citizens in Michigan.
ARI: Well, we used to joke when we worked together that you were one of the few directors that you had your own police department, you had your own navy, you had a little bit of everything, right? Because of the experience or the expanse of what you end up doing as a department
KEITH: In fact, if you’re in rural Michigan and you call law enforcement, many times a CO (Conservation Officer) will show up at your door because they’re fully sanctioned law enforcement agents in this state. And they do everything from drug enforcement to finding lost individuals to investigating — you know if you find dead bodies or have a fatality.
Relative to having your own navy, certainly on the Great Lakes we do all the enforcement. We have cooperative agreements with the other states and with Canada and so we do enforce laws on the water also.
Accomplishments with natural resources
ARI: You were there for 7 years, looking back now, is there something that you’re particularly proud of that you were able to accomplish in those years?
KEITH: Well, we did a couple of things. One is we were able to bring the natural resources into the urban environment. So if you look at our ability to manage Belle Isle — that was a great effort on our part and it took a joint partnership between the city and the state and local governments, and the citizens of Detroit. But when we started, about 2 million people would visit Belle Isle on an annual basis. Once we start managing it and doing some improvements, it’s up over 4 million people.
So that connectivity of natural resources in urban environments, that was pretty special and it was pretty important to the governor. (Gov. Rick Snyder served from Jan. 2011 through Jan. 2019).
We also then started the Iron Belle Trail — and the governor had the vision of rolling out of bed in Detroit and going all the way across the state and ending up in the west end of the U.P. (Upper Peninsula). And it used to be that communities built trails and now it’s really trails build communities, especially in urban settings.
But we’re able to talk about safe corridors to schools and using trails to get people into schools. We’re able to talk about healthcare and how far you would have to go relative to health and fitness in making sure your heart valves are working. We’re able to talk about foods and nutrition and connecting places like the Eastern Market to the trail system in Detroit. So, when you start talking about natural resources being fundamental to solving the societal issues, that’s a really great policy space to operate in.
Things left undone with natural resources
ARI: What about as you were leaving the department, did you kind of look back and think, “That’s something I didn’t get done,” or something you wish that you had accomplished
KEITH: Well there’s a couple of things in your question. One thing that we combat every day is invasive species and we worked really hard to build a consortium across the Great Lakes to make sure that we’re paying attention to invasive carp. And we didn’t get that done. We got started, it’s a good foundation, we have a great partnership. But what’s left undone is getting the state of Illinois to take responsibility for Brandon (Road) Lock and Dam, to make sure that is not a point where invasive carp can enter the Great Lakes.
That’s one. Two is as we left, we were able to get legislative support to run a constitutional campaign to amend the (Natural Resources) Trust Fund, which is a really good thing so that we can address our priorities of the day. What we didn’t get done was alternative or increased funding for state parks. And there’s a backlog in our state parks and so we need to figure out how we will fund state parks over the long term.
ARI: Yeah, this is obviously a big project for Jessi and I this year as we’re visiting all 103 state parks. And I know from having worked in state government that it has always been a concern about how you keep up with the funding with the projects that need to get done. We currently have a system in Michigan where we pay for our annual state park permit as part of our license plate when we get our registration. That’s an opt-in at this point right, still?
KEITH: That’s exactly right it’s an opt-in. We tried to get that as an opt-out and didn’t have full legislative support to get that done. Right now, it’s $11 as you know, and it’s the best $11 you can spend because it does support the natural resources, it does support parks and it makes a fundamental difference.
Right now we’re at about 35% of the vehicles having a Rec Passport (Michigan Recreational Passport), which is highly appreciated by the DNR. But we need to grow that so that we get it up closer to 50%. We have about a $200 million backlog in just fundamental infrastructure needs in our state parks and that’s because our users are changing. Our users are now wanting to use yurts or cabins or they want either to have a large motorhome or they’re a minimalist, they might only bring a hammock. And we need to be able to satisfy both ends of that spectrum.
ARI: I’ve noticed actually as we have been in some of the state parks already how they’re starting to update some of the electrical systems and we’re starting to see 50-amp service because most of the big rigs now are taking 50 amps. But that’s quite an undertaking to get improved, isn’t it?
KEITH: That’s exactly right, you need to have increased electrical capability and capacity, you need to have water. Some of the big rigs demand that at those sites and some of our infrastructure is aging just from use. So you can talk about historically there was about 20 million users well there was about 28 million visits at state parks last year and with that demand comes wear and tear on the infrastructure. So, we need to think about it as both a business model so that we don’t compete with private entities but also as a public access opportunity so that we can provide those services for those that need them.
ARI: Well and nationally we have noticed in the last few years, in particular, I think it’s kind of peaked and leveled out a little bit now, but RV sales have been going through the roof really for the past few years and that means more people looking for camping spots. I know as I talk to folks around the country, they’re running into issues of you’ve got to make reservations really early or you’re not going to land in a park somewhere or in a campground. That’s something I can see is going to continue over the next few years.
KEITH: Yeah, what’s pretty neat about Michigan is we’re second to California in camp nights. So we had over 1.1 million camp nights. Ludington (State) Park is our busiest park. So one of the things we got done right before we left office was we were able to actually secure some additional acreage from Sargent Sand company as part of Ludington State Park. Because it was a sand mining operation somewhat right in the middle of that park, so we were able to expand that footprint and potentially expand some camping opportunities there.
But to your point, you have to have available space and you have to make sure that the restrooms are clean and the garbage is picked up and that you do have the appropriate staff in place to provide the high-quality experience because that’s why people come back.
ARI: Jessi and I are going to hit all 103 state parks. We have a couple that we already consider favorites because we have tended to visit them and we may find more as we see all of them. As the department director, you probably weren’t allowed to have a favorite. Do you have any now that you’re not the department director, or do you have any that you think people really should not miss certain parks?
KEITH: First, what a great opportunity to see 103 state parks and see the best of what Michigan has to offer. So, you can start with Milliken State Park right in Detroit and then go to Porcupine Mountains State Park in the U.P. and do the wilderness experience. There was a blog out the other day and there was a little press release out about Craig Lake State Park. And that’s kind of a special spot; I’ve got a lot of good memories there. It’s a carry-in only area, wilderness camping. You can stay in a yurt if you want, great fishing. I have memories of doing Fort Wilkins State Park as a kid; just couldn’t wait to look at all the history and the fort. Go up Brockway Mountain and look at Lake Fanny Hooe.
One of my favorites is a little sleepy park on the east side: Hoeft State Park. It’s just a nice quiet park — you can go to Rogers City, you can launch your boat, and that’s a lot of fun. But my kids and grandkids like Ludington State Park. It’s our busiest park. There’s trails, there’s the beach, there’s inland water, you can do whatever you want to do — and at the same time, you can go down to House of Flavors and get an ice cream cone.
So, in Michigan, we’re really blessed. You can catch fish, for instance, if you’re a fisherperson any day of the year. We have the largest freshwater fish portfolio in the world, according to our fisheries chief — I’m sure he’s not biased. It doesn’t matter if you want to catch bass, walleye, perch, bluegill, trout, salmon.
You can do it all here in Michigan, which is really neat. You can go ride your bike on a linear state park and you can enjoy that. Any place that you go in this state I think you’re only a half hour from a state park or a state forest campground or a trail that gives you access to the outdoors and that is something special in Michigan. Many of the people listening, they probably know this but we should say it one more time: we have the most public access this side of the Mississippi and that’s something that’s pretty special. That’s not a hands-off it’s really all hands on and it allows us to look, touch and feel and enjoy our natural resources and it’s a great opportunity.
ARI: You rattled off a number of parks that I recognize and Jessi and I have been to. Jessi has lived here her entire life, I’ve been here since like junior high age. But when we were going through making the list of the 103, there were some that we hadn’t even heard of and we’re like, “Where are these little parks?” and it’s going to be fun to see these and see the area and the communities they’re with. So we are looking forward to that.
KEITH: It doesn’t matter. As I say: you like spring flowers? Now’s the time to be out hiking the trails. And if you like fishing, then you can go to Onaway or you can go to Burt Lake or you can go to the west end of the U.P. — Twin Lakes. There’s something in it that’s somewhat magical for everyone. You can go to Fayette (Historic State Park) and see what it used to be and all that historic preservation and restoration work there at the bottom of the Garden Peninsula. So there are lots of opportunities in Michigan and with 103 of them, you’ll be busy.
ARI: Something that you mention is you can catch fish year-round; you can really do almost anything in the most of the parks year-round. Not all the campgrounds are open in the winter time, obviously, although as we have pointed out to people, we go to Tahquamenon Falls State Park every January. People wouldn’t think it’s open but it’s open. The DNR will plow spots for you and they do a great job of leveling out and they make sure there’s space for you.
KEITH: In fact, as you know, you can do some great cross country skiing in the wintertime in the state parks. You can actually make snowshoes and go out and try them out. So people think about it only during the summertime. But we’re trying to increase activity during the shoulder season — spring and fall- – but those that are hardcore campers and people who are outdoor enthusiasts, they get out in the winter time and enjoy it.
Using and enjoying natural resources
So, anyone who wants to use a park, you can go to the DNR website. There’s a reservation system and we’re trying to upgrade that system to actually allow you to view the campsite that you’re going to reserve before you reserve it. And because of the popularity, it certainly is a recommendation to get in early, plan your trip, and then enjoy yourself while you’re here.
ARI: That’s going to be huge. You’ve been able to kind of get online for a while now and make a reservation and see where the sites are located. And sometimes just there are pictures with a site, sometimes there’s not. But being able to really take a look at the site itself before you make that decision is going to be a huge boon, I think, for people.
KEITH: In fact, I just had that experience using it myself. I’m sure I didn’t bias the decision. But my 10-year-old granddaughter — the rule is when you get to be 10 you get to go any place in the country you want with Grandma and Grandpa — so we asked her “Where do you want to go?” and she says, “I want to go camping in Michigan, Grandpa. I don’t want to go glamping.” So she had to look and make sure my pop-up camper wasn’t too fancy. She wants to kayak, she wants to fish, she wants to see dark skies. So we reserved a week at Straits State Park so we can take in Mackinac Island, Tahquamenon, the Soo Locks. We can bike to town, we can do the dark sky, we can do some kayaking. So I’m looking forward to a week at Straits State Park with my granddaughter from Virginia and it will be a great way to spend a week.
ARI: That’s a kid after my own heart! It sounds like a perfect way to spend some time.
KEITH: Yeah, it should be fun.
ARI: You often think about states that you would visit and that sort of thing. Michigan is unique and it’s a great place to visit — I always think of it though as it’s not really a place you drive through to get somewhere necessarily. You kind of have to make it a destination. But Michigan has a lot to offer and people really should come up and see what we have up here.
KEITH: Well it really is a destination state and that’s part of being a peninsula is you just don’t drive through it you have to want to get here. That’s an advantage if you’re coming here to enjoy natural resources. Sometimes it’s a disadvantage for shipping goods and services.
But as you come here, those that visit from the outside, they are just awestruck by the Great Lakes and by the sand dunes and by the virgin timber and by the big fish you catch, and by being able to go out on charters, and being able to ride an ORV through the woods in relatively quiet areas. And that is a unique experience that sometimes, as Michiganders, we take that for granted and those are the things that are really special. And if you go to other states, you’ll notice that we do take care of those that are using our resources and treat them as a customer.
And that’s why we have a 90% satisfaction rate because we want people, as they come to Michigan, and that they use the resource, they use it in a sustainable manner, they appreciate it but they use it both for current and future generations. And that’s what makes us as Michiganders pretty special.