UPPER SIOUX AGENCY STATE PARK — Pitch a tent in a state park campground this summer, and there’s a chance the camper at the next site will want to know your thoughts on the whole experience.
That was the case for campers at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park last weekend, who were surprised to discover State Parks and Trails Director Erika Rivers and family pitching their tent in site #11. Rivers plans to pitch the tent at a number of state parks this summer, all for the chance to visit with park users.
“We want to hear what people really care about the most in the system,’’ said Rivers, as she hosted her first “S’mores & More’’ event where the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota Rivers join in the park.
She had spent part of the day paddling a stretch of the Minnesota River as part of the 125th anniversary celebration of the state’s parks and trails system.
Campers at the park toasted marshmallows over a campfire, shared stories and told Rivers about what they liked most about the parks.
Rivers said she has encouraged other members of the State Parks and Trails Division management team to host similar events.
It’s all about gathering input and ideas as decisions are made for the future of the state parks and trails, Rivers explained.
State park usage has bucked a national trend, enjoying a roughly 30 percent increase from 2008 to today. This is at a time when many traditional outdoor pursuits, such as fishing and hunting, and even ATV riding, are staying relatively flat in terms of usage, she said.
There’s one trend the state parks are not bucking: They too are looking for ways to cope with limited resources.
While revenues to the parks have increased, they have not been able to keep pace with rising costs. “(Our) cost of doing business is increasing at a pace that is outstripping our appropriations right now,’’ Rivers told the campers.
The parks division has divided the 75 state parks into tiers it calls destination, core and rustic parks as a way to allocate the limited resources. More of the resources are allocated to the destination parks, which host the larger number of visitors.
The parks system has also looked for ways to cut back on costs, implementing a self-registration process for campers and trimming services. Last winter, it discontinued grooming cross country ski trails at 23 of the 45 parks which once offered ski trails.
There are no plans at this point to close any parks, Rivers said, but she made no promises for the future.
“The system is costly to run so I would not rule that out,’’ she said.
The park system will release a state park vehicle license plate this October or November that is aimed at raising additional revenues. The Legislature has also continued to appropriate a lion’s share of the operating costs for the parks from the general tax fund. Revenues from the sale of lottery tickets also support the parks. Park permits, user fees and merchandise sales only cover about 20 to 30 percent of operation costs, she noted.
Rivers said the state parks are also open to partnering with Friends groups and others to maintain services affected by the budget decisions. A number of state park Friends groups have already expressed an interest in restoring winter ski trails, she said.
The director said the parks are also open to working with the Friends of Fort Ridgely State Park. The group wants to maintain the park’s nine-hole golf course, which the park system is planning to close. Rivers said they are trying to work out a concession agreement which would allow the Friends to keep the course open this year. She said the Friends do not believe they can do it this year, so it’s back to the drawing board.
The large board she brought with her to the Upper Sioux Agency State Park was covered with images of the recreational opportunities available at state parks, and stick-on buttons for campers to place on those that are their favorites.
While the group of campers who joined Rivers had a range of thoughts on what they enjoy most, they voiced a theme she knows well. “Minnesotans love their state parks.’’ said Rivers.