DNR dedicates Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge, a tribute to longtime parks and recreation chief
PARADISE, MI— A 142-foot-long bridge installed last fall over the Tahquamenon River just got an important addition: a name.
Friends, family, Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials and other colleagues gathered Monday morning at the Lower Tahquamenon Falls to dedicate the Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge, honoring the man at the helm of the DNR Parks and Recreation Division as chief for 17 years.
The fabricated, all-aluminum pedestrian bridge at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, located in Paradise in the eastern Upper Peninsula, officially opened for use over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The bridge itself is an apt symbol for Olson, who has built a career around bringing people together and encouraging them to aim for destinations they can’t yet see.
“When it comes to possibilities in parks and recreation, nobody is better at building bridges and getting people to the table than Ron Olson,” said DNR Director Dan Eichinger.
- Championed (through the MI Big Green Gym partnership, with mParks and Blue Cross Blue Shield) the belief that state, county and local parks are the least expensive “gyms” around, and they drive tourism to even the most remote places in the state.
- Helped guide the implementation of the Recreation Passport to replace the old window sticker for vehicle entry to Michigan state parks – a move creating cost savings for individual parkgoers while establishing a more consistent source of operating revenue.
- Advocated for prioritizing a more diverse workforce through programs such as the Summer Youth Employment Initiative and efforts to infuse the department with new voices and perspectives.
- Introduced the Chief’s Challenges to inspire solution-focused ideas built around three goals: Green Initiatives to find energy savings, Marketing and Innovations to find new revenue-generating ventures, and the Million Dollar Challenge that tasked everyone with finding ways to save money, with the goal of saving $1 million in total.
- Pioneered a matching grant program for accessible recreation amenities, promising to match any community or Friends Group that could raise 50% of project funding for a playground, beach chair, Mobi-mat or fishing pier – a challenge that led to greater staff/community collaboration that continues today.
- Overseen some of Michigan’s biggest state park and campground visitation numbers – 35 million visitors a year – fueled in part by residents’ reliance on the outdoors during the COVID pandemic.
“Ron lives and breathes Michigan state parks, trails and waterways, and he will talk – and listen – to anyone, anywhere about ways to protect and improve these treasured resources so that every resident and visitor can enjoy them and be inspired to love them as much as he does,” Eichinger said. “I am proud to be here today and share in this much-deserved celebration of Ron’s remarkable contributions.”
The bridge’s installed naming plaque reads: "Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge. In honor of his dedication, hard work and accomplishments with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division."
Signature vision, many honors
The department’s natural resources deputy, Shannon Lott, said that since Olson joined the DNR in 2005, he has approached challenges and opportunities within the recreation world in his own way.
“Many of Ron’s staff talk about how Ron sees things differently: not as they are or how they’ve been, but what could be – in fact, what should be – to solidify state parks, trails and waterways as relevant, even revered, to every Michigan resident and visitor,” Lott said. “All of Ron’s decisions are guided by the goal of creating the best visitor experiences, but in ways that protect natural and historical resources and give employees the room to grow and succeed.”
One such example stemmed from Olson’s observation of aging park infrastructure, evolving camp lodging trends and staff seeking more work hours. That simple intersection of needs resulted in opportunities for seasonal rangers to extend their employment season in order to help build tiny houses and reimagine the mini-cabins that now are among campers’ most popular lodging choices.
Olson brought a wealth of experience to the DNR, having served as parks and recreation director in Ann Arbor, Michigan – he left his mark there, too; Olson Park is named in his honor – and other jurisdictions in Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota. He is active in the National Recreation and Park Association, the National Association of State Park Directors and the American Academy of Park and Recreation Professionals. He also is past president and current board member of the Michigan Recreation and Park Association Foundation.
His passion and contributions have not gone unnoticed. Other honors include:
- Recognition (twice) as Public Official of the Year by the Huron Valley Sierra Club.
- Recipient of the W.W. Patty Alumni Award from Indiana University.
- Recognized as one of the College of Education’s top 100 alumni of the University of Minnesota.
- The Michigan state parks system earning the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in State Park and Recreation Management (2011).
- The National Association of State Park Directors (NASPD) Distinguished Service Award (2014).
- The Richard Lawson Award for Professional Excellence (2022), in recognition of significant contributions over many years to the parks profession.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Olson also makes many efforts to bridge his knowledge and experience to the next generation of parks and recreation managers.
He has served on the Board of Regents and as an instructor for the National Parks and Recreation Supervisor Management School, served as a regent and instructor at the NASPD State Park Leadership School, and has presented numerous educational sessions at the NRPA national and Michigan conferences and at other states’ park and recreation conferences and training institutes.
About the bridge
Installed in September 2021 in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the 142-foot-long span was constructed in Florida, and its four sections were set in place with the aid of a helicopter.
The bridge now provides improved access for anyone who wants to view the river or visit an island situated in the middle of the Lower Falls rapids.
Other components of the bridge project include 350 feet of boardwalk connecting the mainland to the bridge abutment location and a half-mile, barrier-free pathway around the perimeter of the island, dotted with additional boardwalk sections and benches. DNR Parks and Recreation Division capital outlay funding paid for the entire $1.28 million project, including the bridge and accessibility improvements.