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New proposal would automatically opt drivers in for $14 annual park passport

The proposal would expand funding for the Department of Natural Resources, but some say the change would place a burden on drivers.

A proposed change to Michigan’s natural resource funding could cost you the next time you renew your license plate. The director of the Department of Natural Resources has acknowledged that the proposal would be “more burdensome” for drivers.

Under a recommendation included in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s annual budget proposal, drivers renewing their plate would be automatically opted in to purchase a state recreation passport, a symbol on a license plate that allows vehicle entry to state parks, campgrounds and trails for one year after its purchase.

Currently, the passport is available for $14 when ordering or renewing a vehicle’s license plate, with the default renewal option not including the purchase. Officials have proposed automatically including the charge in Michigan residents’ plate renewals, a change that the state estimates would bring in over $17 million annually.


Drivers would still be able to opt out of purchasing the service, but would need to intentionally make the decision to do so. The specific method of opting out is still being determined, but officials have suggested a postcard sized reimbursement form with prepaid postage.

While most Michigan drivers would see their renewal cost increase, Michigan’s veterans would be granted a passport free of charge. The state is home to over 550,000 veterans, according to 2023 figures from the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans affairs. This exemption would result in a $4 million loss in revenue, officials said.

Scott Bowen, director of the DNR, said at a House hearing that the change is “significant and necessary” to address an “ongoing backlog of infrastructure preventative maintenance and operational needs in our state parks.”

“The change to the opt-out model is necessary to the future of our parks,” he said. Bowen said the passport system included access to over 100 state parks, 1,300 boating launch sites and 13,500 miles of trails, many of which have seen increased attendance and decreased state general fund dollars over the years.


“The reality is that our 105 year old park system has over $1 billion in assets and has never been sustainably funded,” Bowen said. In 1970, the DNR received 68% of its funding from the state’s general fund. Now, that figure is only 3%.

The funding would go towards six main areas under starting budget figures recommended by Whitmer: $8.6 million for capital expenses; $5.2 million for park operations and maintenance; $1.7 million for local public recreation facilities grants; $1.2 million for state forest campgrounds and pathways; $500,000 for state park cultural and historic resources; and under $100,000 for promotion of state parks and recreation areas.

Currently, around 38% of drivers opt in to purchase a recreation passport with their license plate renewal, according to Jason Crandoll, acting budget officer for the department. Under the new system, Crandoll estimates that figure would increase to 60%.

Bowen faced pushback from Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, at the hearing. Borton said the proposal would essentially “force” drivers to pay the extra $14, possibly without knowledge of the change.


“‘Forcing them’ is, I think, a little strong,” Bowen said in response. “Anybody who can’t afford it, opt out. It’s literally a postcard. And I don’t think that burden is too much to have world class funding for world class parks. It is more burdensome, and that’s why we expect more revenue — but the truth is it’s not that big a burden. And if I had my druthers, I’d put it on every car so we can have more trails and more parks.”

Ed Golder, public information officer for the DNR, said the department wanted to provide the opportunity to opt out “very easily.”

“We’re going to provide every opportunity for people who don’t want to participate to not participate,” he said.

Following the meeting, Borton said that the proposal in its current form would essentially “trick” drivers into paying for a service that they may not plan on using.


“They’re expecting the amount of usage to go from 38% to 60% because they know a lot of people who have no intentions of using a state park will be tricked,” he said. “They won’t send a postcard back — that’s junk mail, they’re going to throw it in the trash. I think they’re taking advantage of the average motorist in the state forcing them into something.”

Borton said that he supported the recreation pass and DNR funding in general and suggested charging more for frequent park visitors like himself.

“But don’t force people unwittingly into paying for something that they have no intentions of ever using,” he said.

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