It’s not easy being Ron Olson these days. Olson, who headed Ann Arbor’s parks system for twenty years, now runs the parks and recreation division of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. And managing one of the nation’s largest parks systems with no state tax revenues during a deep recession is a challenge.

Tall and lanky, Olson is sixty, and his tousled, straw-colored hair is turning gray. Parks have always been his thing. An avid runner and outdoor enthusiast, he majored in recreation and parks administration at the University of Minnesota and got a master’s in the same subject from Indiana University. He spent eleven years in Maryland’s parks system and two years in Indiana’s before being hired to run the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department in 1985.

The next two decades were the glory years for the city’s parks. Backed by environmentally minded voters who approved new taxes to expand and maintain the system, Olson added thirty-five parks and more than 360 acres of land. He oversaw the creation of the Leslie Science and Nature Center, the founding of the Natural Area Preservation program, and the transformation of an old gravel pit on Pontiac Trail into a park with walking and mountain bike paths, and a fishing pond. The city named it in his honor—though he says the credit is really shared with the many good staffers he worked with over the years.

Along the way, Olson twice served briefly as interim city administrator. But as a senior, high-paid employee, he was seen as a drag on the city’s increasingly tight budget, and in 2004, at age fifty-five, he was nearly forced into early retirement. Instead, he found a new, more challenging job in Lansing.

Olson is quick to smile but turns serious when he talks about the state parks. Michigan has ­ninety-eight parks and recreation areas that cover 285,000 acres, from miles of Great Lakes beaches to remote hiking trails in the Porcupine Mountains. The parks include more than 1,300 buildings, nearly 500 miles of roads, and hundreds of sewer and water systems. They attract 22 million annual visitors, who contribute an estimated $650 million to Michigan’s economy. Yet Michigan does not allocate any tax revenues to its park system—and that’s made it increasingly difficult to manage.

“It’s probably as challenged today as it’s ever been,” Olson says. “We have over a billion dollars in assets, and we have documented needs of about $38 million a year for infrastructure and preventative maintenance—and right now we’re only able to budget $2 million.”

As recently as 1970, tax dollars covered more than two-thirds of the state parks budget. But that percentage nose­dived as the state’s economy fol­lowed the Detroit automakers toward disaster. By 2003, the state general fund was contributing just $9 million toward the department’s $54 million budget. Lawmakers zeroed it out in 2004, the year Olson was hired.

To pay the bills, Olson depends on camping fees (47 percent of revenue in 2007–08), entrance fees (23 percent), the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (18 percent), and miscellaneous fees (12 percent), which include concessions, investment earnings, and shelter rentals, amongst others. With park dollars stretched so thin, Olson admits it’s difficult to decide what gets funding and what doesn’t.

“One of the things I try to do is first deal with the basics,” he says, “meaning the park customers want clean bathrooms, litter-free parks, and they want the toilets to work and the showers to work, things like that. So when they pay their money for camping or their entrance fee, they feel they get value for their dollar.”

Faced with a budget crisis, many organizations overreact, cutting capital spending even when it could save them money. To avoid that, Olson says, “each year we set aside money to invest in productive ideas” from parks employees. If employees can produce a business plan showing a 20 percent return on an investment, they can get it funded. For example, says Olson, “if you have an energy conservation idea, we will invest in that idea provided that, basically, you have a five-year payback on that investment.

“The staff has really done a good job of making old dilapidated things shine,” Olson adds. “At Holland State Park, for example, we have a very bad building there with leaky roofs and everything, but they try and keep it up. At certain times water comes down through the ceilings, and it’s not real pleasant, but still we have to operate because we can’t just close it. But eventually, if things get too bad, you get to the point where it’s unsafe or unhealthy, and once that becomes a hazard we’ll have to make a tough choice.

“Luckily we haven’t had to face that yet—but we’re not very far from having to do something like that, unfortunately.”

So far, Olson has kept the budget balanced by cutting payroll and raising fees. But those measures can only go so far.

“One problem with the fees is we’re bouncing on the ceiling because we’re not running a private-country-club type of thing,” Olson says. “And I know, for example, at some of these parks we could charge a huge amount of money and there’s people who would pay it—but it would leave out a lot of the population because they couldn’t afford to come.”

As the budget situation grew more dire, Olson put his staff to work searching for funding options. They learned that Missouri parks receive a percentage of the state sales tax, Texas charges a tax on sporting goods for parks, and Florida’s system gets money from a real estate transfer tax. But the concept that immediately caught Olson’s attention was Montana’s license plate registration system. Every time they renew their vehicle registrations, state residents pay a $4 fee that gives them free access to the state parks. After talking extensively with the Montana parks staff, Olson’s leadership team identified that system as its preferred choice.

Olson took the idea to a support group he’d organized, the Citizens Committee for Michigan State Parks. The members endorsed the plan, and last December they presented the license plate proposal to a special legislative work group set up to review options for long-term funding ideas for the Department of Natural Resources. Following the presentation, committee members met with lawmakers to seek potential sponsors. Ann Arbor Democrat Rebekah Warren agreed to lead the effort in the state house and Saugatuck Republican Patricia Birkholz in the senate. The “Recreation Passport Funding Legislation” is co-sponsored by Rep Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and Sen. Raymond Basham (D-Taylor), making it an extraordinarily bipartisan bill.

“Part of the reason why they did this is because they want to ensure the parks system, through this license plate package, will be able to continue stimulating tourism,” Olson explains. Tourism is the third largest industry in the state—and one that, unlike the auto industry, is growing rather than shrinking.

The bill would add a $10 charge to license plate registration fees beginning in 2010. Vehicle owners would have the option to opt out of the charge if they don’t want to use the parks. In Montana, only 12 percent have done that. Even if 35 percent of Michigan owners opted out, the change would generate an additional $34 million a year for the state parks. Olson says 50 percent of the new funds would go to infrastructure needs, 30 percent to operations and maintenance, 10 percent to matching grants from local governments, 7 percent to state forest campgrounds and pathways, and 3 percent to preserving cultural and historic places.

Olson still lives in Ann Arbor, along a bumpy dirt road off Packard. He commutes to his office in Lansing or to the parks he oversees—getting to parks throughout the state, he says, is one of the real perks of the job.

This month marks the ninetieth anniversary of Michigan’s state park system. On Saturday, June 20, there will be “birthday” activities at all ninety-eight parks and recreation areas. The biggest will be at Sleepy Hollow State Park, north of Lansing—Olson says he’s going to “try and get the governor there.”

Governor Granholm had yet to take a position on the parks passport proposal in mid-May. However, both the state house and senate had moved the legislation out of committee, positioning it to come to a vote soon. Olson says that it’s his understanding that the sponsors hope to push the bill through before the legislature’s summer recess at the end of June. If they pull it off, it will be the state parks’ best birthday present ever.