MNR dedicates Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge, a tribute to longtime parks and recreation leader


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 at Lower Tahquamenon Falls this morning to dedicate the Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge, honoring the man who heads the Division of Parks and recreation of the DNR as chief for 17 years.

The all-aluminum fabricated pedestrian bridge at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, located in Paradise on the eastern Upper Peninsula, officially opened over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. The bridge itself is an apt symbol for Olson, who has built his career on bringing people together and encouraging them to aim for places they can’t yet see.

“When it comes to opportunities in parks and recreation, no one is better at building bridges and bringing people to the table than Ron Olson,” said DNR Director Dan Eichinger.

“Ron lives and breathes Michigan’s state parks, trails and waterways, and he will talk – and listen – to anyone, anywhere about ways to protect and enhance these precious resources. so that every resident and visitor can enjoy them and be inspired to love them as much as they do,” Eichinger said. “I’m proud to be here today and to share in this well-deserved celebration of Ron’s remarkable contributions.”

The name plaque installed on the bridge reads: “Ronald A. Olson Island Bridge. In honor of his dedication, hard work and accomplishments with the Department’s Parks and Recreation Division of Michigan Natural Resources.”

His accomplishments are numerous. Olson, who oversees a parks and recreation system that includes 103 state parks, nearly 1,300 boating access sites, 13,400 miles of state-designated trails and 82 state-sponsored ports State, has:

  • 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 cheapest “gyms” and that they drive tourism even in the most remote places in the state.
  • Helped guide the implementation of the Recreational Passport to replace the old window sticker for vehicle entry into Michigan state parks – a move creating cost savings for individual visitors while establishing a more consistent source of operating revenue.
  • Advocated prioritizing a more diverse workforce through programs such as the Youth Summer Jobs Initiative and efforts to infuse the department with new voices and perspectives.
  • Introducing Leader’s Challenges to inspire solution-focused ideas around three goals: Green Initiatives to find energy savings, Marketing and Innovations to find new revenue-generating businesses, and the Million Dollar Challenge that asked everyone to find ways to save money, with the goal of saving $1 million in total.
  • Launched a matching grant program for accessible recreation facilities, promising to match any community or group of friends who could raise 50% of project funding for a playground, beach chair, Mobi mat or a fishing pier – a challenge that led to greater collaboration between staff and the community that continues today.
  • Oversaw some of Michigan’s highest numbers of state park and campground visits — 35 million visitors a year — fueled in part by residents’ reliance on the outdoors during the COVID pandemic.
  • Signature vision, numerous honors

    head and shoulders view of a smiling man wearing a bicycle helmet, sunglasses and a dark blue and neon yellow shirt who says ann arbor velo club

    The department’s natural resources assistant, Shannon Lott, said that since Olson joined the DNR in 2005, he has approached the challenges and opportunities in 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 have been, but what could be – in fact, what should be – to solidify the parks of ‘state, 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 experiences for visitors, but in a way that protects natural and historic resources and gives employees the opportunity to grow and succeed.”

    One such example stems from Olson’s observation of the park’s aging infrastructure, changing trends in camp accommodations, and staff seeking more work hours. This simple intersection of needs has allowed seasonal rangers to extend their employment season to help build tiny homes and reinvent the mini-cabins that are now among campers’ most popular lodging choices.

    Olson brought a wealth of experience to the DNR, having served as Director of Parks and Recreation in Ann Arbor, Michigan – he also left his mark there; Olson Park is named in his honor – and in other jurisdictions in Maryland, Indiana and Minnesota. He is active with the National Recreation and Park Association, the National Association of State Park Directors, and the American Academy of Park and Recreation Professionals. He is also 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 Indiana University’s WW Patty Alumni Award.
    • Recognized as one of the Top 100 Alumni of the University of Minnesota College of Education.
    • Michigan’s state park system won the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) National Gold Medal for Excellence in State Parks and Recreation Management (2011).
    • 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 works hard to pass on his knowledge and experience to the next generation of parks and recreation managers.

    He has served on the board of directors and as an instructor at the National Parks and Recreation Supervisor Management School, served as regent and instructor at the NASPD State Park Leadership School, and has presented numerous educational sessions at National and Michigan Conferences of NRPA and other state parks and recreation conferences and training institutes.

    About the bridge

    A dozen men wearing yellow helmets, some standing in the river rapids, others on the bridge segment, wait for the helicopter to place the bridge segment

    Installed September 2021 at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, the 142-foot-long span was built in Florida and its four sections were lifted into place using a helicopter.

    The bridge now provides improved access for anyone who wants to see the river or visit an island in the middle of the Lower Falls rapids.

    Other elements of the bridge project include 350 feet of boardwalk connecting the mainland to the bridge abutment location and a half-mile barrier-free trail around the perimeter of the island, dotted with sections and benches of additional walk. Capital funding from MNR’s Parks and Recreation Division paid for the entire $1.28 million project, including bridge and accessibility improvements.

    Note to Editors: Accompanying photos are available below for download. Caption information follows. All photos are courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

    • Ron Olson: Ron Olson, MNR Parks and Recreation Manager, here at the top of the Mackinac Bridge.
    • Ron Olson rides a bike: MNR Parks and Recreation Chief Ron Olson is also an avid outdoorsman outside of work. he enjoys participating in triathlons, fishing and spending time with his granddaughters
    • Plaque: The plaque honoring MNR Parks and Recreation Manager Ron Olson; the plaque now sits on the bridge bearing his name at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
    • Bridge1 and Bridge2: The new pedestrian bridge over the Tahquamenon River connects the mainland to an island in the rapids; it officially opened to visitors over the 2022 Memorial Day holiday weekend.
    • Bridge laying: A helicopter lifts a segment of the new Lower Tahquamenon Falls pedestrian bridge into place during the September 2021 installation.

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