MONROE - If you're not sure just how important boating is to Michigan residents and tourists, take a quick look at a map.
There it becomes obvious just how much of Michigan is water - about 40 percent, to be exact. With more than 11,000 inland lakes and more than 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, Michigan touts itself as a boating-friendly state.
Now the state has its own legislative boating caucus to address boaters' issues and concerns.
The caucus, led by State Rep. Randy Richardville, (R., Monroe) met for the first time last week to organize. More than 40 state lawmakers from both parties expressed interest in participating.
Mr. Richardville said the caucus was formed to help play a role in maintaining and strengthening the boating heritage in the state.
“I'm not even a boat owner, but I realize how important it is,” Mr. Richardville said. “We want to make boaters aware that the state is taking responsibility for the lakes.”
John Patterson of the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau agreed. Pointing to Lake Erie as the county's greatest natural resource, Mr. Patterson said it will be nice for boaters to have a voice in Lansing.
Mr. Patterson added that like all other industries, the boating industry has suffered in recent years, mostly because of the decreasing lake levels. Monroe County has more licensed charter boat captains than any other county in the state, Mr. Patterson said.
“One thing that I have been quoted as saying, although Cabela's is very near and dear in our hearts, I have always professed that Lake Erie has always been the number one tourist attraction in Michigan,” said Mr. Patterson, the bureau's president and chief executive officer. “I think having the Great Lakes so accessible is just amazing and we get everything from the yachts to the one-man kayak.”
According to the Department of Natural Resources, recreational boating brings in more than $1 billion a year. That number doubles to $2 billion if the money boaters spend on other items needed for their recreational outing, such as fishing equipment, is taken into account.
Dennis Knapp, the department's legislative liaison, said that Michigan has hundreds of boating access sites. He added that the DNR has a waterways commission and a boating program within its recreation division, both dedicated to advancing boating opportunities in the state.
“A caucus certainly brings more understanding to our legislators of our boating needs and the capabilities in our department of meeting those needs,” he said.
There was a boating caucus created in the past, but it fizzled out as members of both houses were term-limited out of their seats.
According to Van Snider, president of the Michigan Boating Industries Association, the idea of establishing a state-level boating caucus emerged because a similar one at the federal level was successful.
Mr. Snider said the previous boating caucus proved invaluable to the industry by providing relief legislation for those in the boating industry who were affected by lower water levels.
“This is a very encouraging thing from the industry's standpoint. We have a tremendous amount of water assets here and the fact that we have more registered boats on file than any other state speaks for itself,” Mr. Snider said.