PAUL — A lot of good things are happening this summer at Minnesota state parks, but additional funding is necessary to ensure services and facilities continue at current levels.
That was the message Erika Rivers, director of Minnesota state parks and trails for the Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul, had Thursday, March 2.
In a conference call with media from across the region, Rivers said visitation to Minnesota state parks topped the 10 million mark last year for the first time in the park system’s 125-year history. Thanks to the Legacy Amendment that Minnesota voters approved in 2008, state park visitors will have access to a host of new experiences this year, Rivers said, including new campgrounds at the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park and a new “sugar shack” at Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids, Minn., where visitors will learn how to make maple syrup.
But dark clouds linger on the horizon. Without an influx of new money as recommended by Gov. Mark Dayton in his budget proposal, the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division will have to make even more cuts to the way it does business, a trend that’s already been apparent for a few years.
It’s classic good news/bad news scenario.
“More and more Minnesotans and visitors to our state are discovering the beauty and variety of our state’s parks and trails system,” Rivers said in a statement. “This is excellent news, but it does create challenges to meeting the increased maintenance demands on our system.”
Dayton in his budget proposal recommended an increase in the DNR’s General Fund allocation along with a series of proposed fee increases. Among them:
- State park vehicle permits would increases $1 daily and $5 annually.
- ATV registration fees would increase $5 annually, snowmobiles $10 annually, and boats would increase $1 to $15 depending on the size of the craft.
- Cross-country ski passes would increase $2 daily and $5 annually.
It’s been more than a decade since parks fees have increased, Rivers said, forcing Parks and Trails staff to absorb the increases by making cuts. At state parks in far northwest Minnesota, for example, camping seasons have been shortened, managers in some cases are managing multiple parks and volunteers this winter are grooming cross-country ski trails that otherwise wouldn’t be maintained.
According to DNR projections, the increases would mean an additional $2 million annually to the Snowmobile Account, $1.3 million to the ATV Account, $70,000 to the Cross-Country Ski Account, $1 million to the State Park Account and $2.5 million to the Water Recreation Account.
Substantial amounts of that money flows through the DNR to grant-in-aid programs that pay for trails and boat ramps that benefit local economies.
“If we don’t get these fees approved, we’ll have to reduce our services further, and that’s pretty sad when demand is at an all-time high,” Rivers said. “This fee increase and general fund request is mostly to maintain the services we have currently. By and large, the increases are to recoup the inflationary cost we’ve seen over the last 10 years.”
The Legacy Fund, which dedicates 14.25 percent of the sales tax increase voters approved to the Parks and Trails Fund — more than $317 million annually — can’t be used for day-to-day operations but instead is meant to supplement traditional funding sources to provide new visitor experiences, Rivers said.
It can help establish new parks or trails, in other words, but it can’t pay for the cost of operating them.
“The Legacy funds, the way the legislation was written, were never intended to supplant existing funding,” Rivers said. “They were meant to supplement so we don’t use them for day-to-day operations.”
That’s where the proposed fee increases come into play. And considering park entrance fees, for example, haven’t gone up in 10 years, that’s not unreasonable. Especially in the context of economic impact. Rivers said research shows the average park visitor spends $25.50 a day outside park boundaries.
Do the math: At 10 million people visiting Minnesota state parks last year, that’s an economic benefit of $255 million just on the park side of the ledger.
“The investments we make have translated into a great deal of economic generation from tourism and to local communities across the state,” Rivers said.
More info is available on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/parks_trails/supportparks.html.