ON THE NORTH SHORE — Wednesday arrived with a vengeance in this part of Minnesota. Winds howled beneath an ominous sky, swaying pines and aspens recklessly. Rain blew sideways. And waves from Lake Superior tumbled spectacularly onto the rocky shoreline of Gooseberry Falls State Park.
Not an ideal day for camping. But Jason Stutzka, his wife, Angela, and their young daughter seemed unconcerned. Away from their Lakeville home for the week, hiking, sightseeing and cooking outdoors -- and with a waterproof tent the size of a small cabin to protect them against the elements -- they appeared every bit the happy campers who typically visit Minnesota state parks in summer.
"All of the parks are great," Stutzka said. "We plan to visit four to six more state parks this summer."
But those plans could be put on hold if Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature can't resolve their budget impasse, forcing the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday to shutter its 74 state parks and recreation areas, along with 58 state forest campgrounds and day-use areas.
Arriving on the cusp of the Fourth of July weekend, when many state parks are filled, a shutdown could affect as many as 90,000 state park campers and visitors daily, with revenue losses to the DNR on the busiest days of the holiday weekend nearing $200,000.
Should a shutdown last a month, the DNR money pinch would be more severe still. More than $4 million was collected by state parks in July last year, about a third of its total annual receipts.
Stutzka has little sympathy for either side in the political dispute.
"If you or I didn't get our work done on time," he said, referring to the lack of a budget deal during the regular legislative session, "we'd be out on the street."
Closing Minnesota's state parks, many of which are open year-round, would be unprecedented. But the DNR will have no choice but to ask campers to pull up stakes on Thursday at 4 p.m., absent a budget pact.
"I'm not exactly sure how that would work," said Audrey Butts, DNR manager of Gooseberry Falls State Park, the first state park north of Duluth on Hwy. 61. "We're open 365 days a year, so it's not something we've done before."
Already the DNR has told state park users that beginning Monday, campers with reservations between June 30 and July 14 can receive full deposit refunds if they're worried a budget agreement won't be reached.
(The refund request and park reservation phone number is 1-866-857-2757.)
Campers and picnickers wouldn't be the only ones turned away if a shutdown occured. Among the most popular vacation destinations in Minnesota, the eight state parks along the North Shore are regularly used for family reunions and weddings -- a dozen or so of the latter each year at Gooseberry Falls alone.
Indeed, many trips to state parks, where campsites can be reserved up to a year in advance, follow months-long planning.
"Most of our camping trips to state parks during the rest of the summer will be on weekends," Jason Stutzka said. "But some will be for three days, which will include a vacation day. So that has to be planned."
Despite an apparent downturn of young visitors to parks, and ongoing concerns about cultivating among the state's increasingly diverse population an interest in camping, Minnesota state parks remain popular.
More than 9.5 million visits to state parks were estimated in 2010, up from 9.1 million in 2009 and 8.3 million in 2008.
During the same period, campers staying overnight rose from 863,075 to 985,374. And sales of $25 annual state park stickers increased about 20 percent.
Minnesotans' love affair with special landscapes dates to 1885, when a failed attempt was made to protect Minnehaha Falls as a state park.
Itasca would become Minnesota's first state park in 1891, and only the second state park in the nation. But it wasn't until 1935 that state parks were given their own division within the Minnesota Department of Conservation, forerunner to the DNR.
That designation coincided with the upswing of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, and his establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Still today, the years-long handiwork of thousands of men housed in CCC camps in the 1930s can be found in state parks across Minnesota, as David R. Benson notes in his book, "Stories in Log and Stone" ($18.95, Minnesota DNR).
"Visiting the parks 'where Dad worked' [as a CCC employee] became a family tradition" after World War II, as the economy improved and automobile ownership expanded, Benson writes. "The faithfulness of these men and their families sustained Minnesota's state parks and helped fashion the places they have become."
On Wednesday, in the rain, standing alongside a deafening Gooseberry River as it raucously drained its 100-square-mile, rain-swollen watershed, Paul Sundberg couldn't get enough of the park surrounding him.
Sundberg retired last year as manager of Gooseberry Falls State Park, where his career spanned three decades.
Now, even on a June day that seemed more like one in late November, he still visits.
"It would be devastating if the park closed," Sundberg said.
In one of Gooseberry's 69 campsites not far away, five buddies from the Wadena area agreed.
"This is a tradition for us, camping once a summer at a state park together," Scott Wegner said. "It would be a shame if the parks close."
Added a fellow camper, David Lindquist:
"Anyone would be foolish to say it's a good thing if a shutdown happens. If the parks close down, people are still going to vacation. They'll just take their money to Wisconsin or another state."
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com