Making Waves: Paddlesports community questions potential fees

A proposal that would require owners of kayaks, canoes and paddleboards to register their craft with the state is generating a boatload of controversy in the paddling community.

The Michigan State Waterways Commission passed a little-noticed resolution in February recommending that paddlecraft owners pay a registration fee of as much as $10 a year. Currently, human-powered watercraft are exempt from state registration.

Fees for boats that already must be registered with the state would see an unspecified “nominal percentage increase” under the commission’s proposal. The commission’s resolution is advisory. Changes in state law would be needed to require registration of paddlecraft and impose new fees.

Requiring registration of paddlecraft would raise an estimated $4 million over three years for infrastructure and safety patrols, according to the commission.

Supporters of the measure say more money is needed to police the explosion of kayaks and paddleboards dotting Michigan’s lakes and rivers. Local sheriff’s departments say inadequate state funding for marine patrols is stressing their ability to ensure safety for paddlers in their waters.

“The money we get from the state is not nearly enough to cover our expenses,” Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley said.

Marine safety grants to local sheriff departments have been roughly flat at about $1.4 million annually in recent years. Bensley said the money originally was designed to pay 75 percent of marine patrol costs of local departments, but now covers only about 60 percent of the costs.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 600,000 unregistered canoes, kayaks and paddleboards in use in the state, two-thirds the number of registered boats in the state. The number of paddlecraft in Michigan is growing by about 7 percent a year.

Many paddlesports enthusiasts and dealers are skeptical of the registration plan. They acknowledge more money is needed for education, rescues and safety patrols, but worry that the registration revenue might be used mostly to fund the state bureaucracy.

“If they used the funds to improve [launching sites] for paddle craft and safety programs, I don’t think anyone would oppose that,” said Cory Smith, a manager at Backcountry North, a kayak dealer in Traverse City. “The only concern is if they impose a fee, but the money gets spent elsewhere.”

The Waterways Commission’s proposal to register paddlecraft also has exposed a rift between businesses that rent those craft and some individual paddling clubs.

Rental businesses have long been required to pay registration fees for their paddlecraft and contend that private owners should have to do so as well.

“We’ve forever wanted reform,” said Mark Miltner, owner of Pine River Paddlesports Center in Wellston and a director of the Michigan Association of Paddlesports Providers. “The Waterways Commission vote would put some fairness back into the system. I believe in user pay. The question is what’s the best way to implement it.”

But individual paddlecraft owners say rental operations should be required to register their craft because they’re running profit-making businesses that utilize Michigan’s water resources. Some say requiring individuals to register their paddlecraft might prove a financial burden to low-income paddlecraft owners.

Prices for kayaks, for instance, start at little more than $100. Sophisticated models can cost several thousand dollars.

Many paddlers also are dissatisfied with the way they’ve been treated by law enforcement officers and by the state’s poorly designed launching sites, said John Heiam, spokesman for the 150-member Traverse Area Paddle Club.

“The state is notoriously bad in designing access for paddlecraft,” he said. “It’s hard to get support from the paddling community when there is so much history.”

Bensley said sheriff departments also have been critical of how the state distributes watercraft registration money. While sheriff departments have strict reporting requirements of how they spend state money, the DNR is not accountable for the $1.3 million a year it gets for its own marine patrols.

“The DNR has no reporting requirements,” he said. “That’s been a rub for decades.”

Michael Gray, the owner of Uncommon Adventures, a kayak travel company in Beulah, said he would support registering paddlecraft if it benefited the increasingly popular recreational activity.

“If the money was earmarked for education and waterways access, I’d support it,” said Gray, who also is the Michigan director of the American Canoe Association. “There’s no way if the money gets dumped in the general fund.”

That points to a big misconception about how state boat registration money is spent, said Dennis Nickels, chairman of the Waterways Commission.

“It doesn’t go into the state general fund. People aren’t aware of that,” he said. “The money is spent on facilities, training, safety and programs associated with providing waterways access to citizens.”

About half of the $9.7 million in annual state boat registrations is distributed to the DNR for boating safety programs, law enforcement on state waters and administrative costs. The rest is allocated for the construction of harbors and boat launch facilities.

Boat registrations have fallen from a peak of one million in 2003 to 901,000 this year. The state has not increased registration fees since 1993, Nickels said.

More money would allow the state to add paddlecraft entry access points at the state’s 1,300 boat launching sites and more vehicle parking. Parking at many sites is mostly restricted to cars with boat trailers.

“The program we envision would enhance the on-the-water experience of paddlers,” Nickels said.
More money for new launch sites could also come from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund under a state Senate bill that would amend the constitution and allow for the increased expenditures.

The bill, which is pending, was introduced in January by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba.
“That would help us immensely,” Nickels said.

Any state action on requiring registration of paddlecraft is unlikely this year; no legislation has been introduced.

The debate over registration is likely to continue and is drawing national attention. Just seven states require paddlecraft registration, according to American Whitewater, which advocates for protection of whitewater rivers.

“Other states are watching what’s going to happen in Michigan,” Gray said.