DNR Douses Campers’ Hopes, Delays Season Until June 22

Camping at places like Big Bear Lake has been delayed until June 22. (Courtesy Michigan DNR)

Westland resident Bryan Bentley is an avid camper, and had two campsites reserved and paid for at Algonac State Park for the weekend of June 12.

Unfortunately for Bentley, and the many other campers looking forward to the new season, that reservation is gone. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources announced this week that, under the guidelines laid out in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order, camping, overnight shelters and shelters won’t open until June 22.

And Bentley, who also has reservations in July, isn’t happy about it.

“I am bitterly disappointed with the decision … to close down camping at our state parks for the next seven weeks or more,” Bentley said. “I never leave this beautiful state for vacations. I don’t go on cruises, or to Florida, or wherever. I stay in my state, and never run out of beautiful new places to camp.

“I anxiously look forward to my three camping trips every summer, I purchase my state park license plate every year to support our state parks, and I reserve and pay for my campsites six months in advance every winter,” he added. “For (Whitmer) to unilaterally shut down camping until June 22 is just another example of her micromanagement during this pandemic.”

The decision was made as Whitmer begins to ease restrictions put in place under the order. The primary focus recently has been on re-engaging the economy by determining which businesses can safely reopen, but outdoor enthusiasts are just as eager to get started with summer activities.

But Ron Olson, chief of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division, said that while he and his staff are “eager to welcome back campers and visitors,” proper safety precautions and maintenance work must happen first.

“We know millions of residents are eager to return to state parks and recreation areas, and we will be here to serve them and make their visits as enjoyable as possible, but we have to open the right way and be certain that facilities and sites are clean, safe and ready to accommodate everyone,” Olson said.

Bentley said the provisions of the order that allow people, for example, to shop for groceries and other items are more problematic than letting people camp in the parks.

“I have been in far closer contact with crowds of people at my local grocery store than I will ever be while camping at one of our beautiful state parks, or in one of our National Forests,” he said. “People have been homebound for weeks on end, and it is beginning to have a very adverse effect on our mental wellbeing. Allowing Michiganders to go out, and safely enjoy the outdoors for a weekend would go a long way in relieving the stress that is gripping so many in our state.”

Most state parks and recreation areas and state-managed trails and boating access sites remain open to provide local opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, but social distancing is key, the DNR said. Federal and state health officials consistently have said that keeping at least six feet away from those outside your household is vital to containing the virus spread.

Proposed facility reopening dates are based  on the updated stay-at-home executive order that ends May 15 and are staggered to allow for proper preparation. Details on closures and changes in services, as well as frequently asked questions, are available on the DNR’s COVID-19 response webpage at Michigan.gov/DNR.

The changes and planned public opening dates include the following, but further changes to the EO could affect these plans:

  • Prep time: To prepare state-managed parks, trails and boating facilities, many important tasks must be completed once nonessential work is permitted. The department anticipates staff can start work May 15 once the stay-at-home order is lifted; prep work is expected to take roughly five weeks.
  • Camping and overnight lodging reservations for dates between May 15 and June 21 have been canceled. Reimbursement options include: Requests to change reservation dates to later in the season (pending availability within the reservation booking window) and earn a free night for that time period. No reservation fees or cancellation/modification fees will be charged. Reservation holders who want this option must contact the call center at 800-447-2757 by May 15 at 8 p.m.

Campers can also choose a full refund to automatically be applied to their original payment method, including the reservation fee. Reservation holders do not need to take any action; all remaining reservations will automatically be canceled after May 15, and an email will be sent when the refund is completed.

Other operational announcements included:

  • Bathroom buildings and hand-washing stations are closed through at least June 3, although those facilities associated with campgrounds will remain closed until the campground opens. Trash service also has been halted during the same time frame.
  • Dispersed camping on approved state-managed lands is not permitted until at least May 15.
  • Due to the extended stay-at-home order and operational functions associated with starting the season, the tentative opening date at Silver Lake State Park ORV Area in Oceana County is Wednesday, June 3. Staff is scheduled to return May 15 and the prep work is anticipated to take about three weeks.

In order to minimize face-to-face interactions and the exchange of money, the Recreation Passport requirement for vehicle entry to state parks and recreation areas, state forest campgrounds and state-managed boating access sites has been suspended until at least two weeks after the stay-at-home order ends.