LANSING - Each year a group of Finnish hunters come to Michigan to hunt in the state parks.
State officials hope that recent recognition as the nation's best will bring yet more visitors to the system.
Four states were in the running for the 2011 National Recreation and Park Association Gold Medal: Michigan, Florida, Missouri and North Carolina. It is the first time that the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation and Park Association recognized Michigan with the top honor.
Craig Lake State Park is the most remote state park in the system. Access into the park can be an adventure. The park contains six full lakes and a variety of wildlife such as deer, black bear, beaver, loons and moose. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
The national recognition could expand tourism, said Michelle Begnoche, senior communications specialist for Travel Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
"Our state parks are a huge tourism destination," Begnoche said.
Each year Michigan state parks earn $650 million from visitors spending on food, gas and activities outside the parks, said Mary Dettloff, press secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.
Approximately 22 million people visit Michigan state parks each year, ten times the number of people who go to Detroit Tigers games, Dettloff said. People come from around the world.
The other states that were in the running have slightly lower annual attendance:
- Florida - 20 million.
- Missouri - 16 million to 17 million.
- North Carolina - 14 million.
The award showcases the natural beauty of the state, something people outside Michigan don't realize, Begnoche said.
It allows her to tell people from across the country that Michigan is a vacation destination. She has already sent the information to tourism officials.
The most-visited parks have stayed generally the same; attendance statewide was slightly up from 2009, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
Patricia Rasmussen's businesses, Terrace Inn in Petoskey and Khardomah Lodge in Grand Haven, thrive on tourism. Both businesses are located near state parks.
"It's a draw for people," she said. "It adds to your destination, what you offer- the beauty of the state parks."
People come to her business in Grand Haven because of the state park but people come to Petosky for Petosky and the state park is just there, she said.
Rasmussen said the Petoskey State Park could be more of a draw with cleaner beaches and better promotion. It's not as connected to the community as the Grand Haven State Park but it's still a great thing for her business, she said.
Tourism dollars aren't everything, according to Charlie Peek, public information officer for the North Carolina State Parks.
"This is a point in time when people need to step back and say, what do state parks mean to us?" Peek said. "Are they supposed to be revenue generators, are they just for people who can afford to go or are they something more than that?"
North Carolina focuses on ecological preservation more than anything else and thinks that is why they were in the running for the medal, Peek said.
It is also important to have preservation of state parks but you can never have too many tourists, Dettloff said.