Painful park cuts ahead

Like many states, Minnesota is struggling to find new financial footing for its state parks. That means the parks will change - this time with service cuts that park users will notice.

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Nathan Rineer, 15, of Chisago Lakes, left, and Katy Gerber, 17, of Osseo worked on clearing a hiking path at Afton State Park.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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Beverly Sundheim has hiked or biked along trails in all 74 of Minnesota's state owned and operated jewels -- the bluffs of Whitewater State Park, the tumbling river in Tettegouche, and the tiny stream in Itasca that grows into the mighty Mississippi River.

In the 10 years it took her to check off each state park, she had only one bad experience, she said. A park employee forgot to leave her a key for a camper cabin, and she ended up in town at a motel.

Now, as the state and the country wrestle with profound questions about the role of government and taxation, the future of all the treasured places that have been preserved as parks in Minnesota and across the country is up for grabs.

No matter how the current budget fight is resolved, one thing is clear. In the next 10 years, Sundheim and the other 9 million annual visitors will see their parks change for the worse unless the state finds new ways to pay for them.

"Cuts have to be made," said Sundheim, 64, of Cannon Falls, Minn. "But I hope they do it right so it doesn't keep people from coming to the parks. That would be sad. They are so wonderful."

The good news is that it could be a lot worse.

The Ohio Legislature last month voted to open its parks to oil and gas exploration. California plans to close a fourth of its 278 parks by next year. Corporate sponsorships could keep Idaho parks open.

None of that is in the offing for Minnesota, at least not yet. But the state parks' $35 million annual budget likely will be cut by 10 to 20 percent next year, said state officials. That's on top of smaller cuts over the past 10 years that have grown to about $3.4 million a year, said Courtland Nelson, state parks director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"We've been making cuts and cuts for years," he said. Now "we have made a decision to be more tactical about where those cuts are felt."

Tactical, in this case, means painful. So far, Nelson said, most of the cost-cutting has been in administrative offices and other places that visitors don't usually notice. As Sundheim noted about her tour, the bathrooms still get cleaned, and most parks are still open until dark. But this fall the DNR will start trying to figure out how and where to cut park services over the next two years.

Some unknown number of parks likely will be mothballed, Nelson said. That doesn't mean closed, exactly. They will be open for public use. But flush toilets? Groomed trails? RV campsites? Some will be gone.

Nelson said that the state probably will preserve services at the crown jewels of the system such as Itasca State Park, which he described as "our Yellowstone." It's not the most popular (that's Fort Snelling), but it is among the most expensive to operate because of its breadth of activities and services including bike trails, a lodge, visitors center and multiple campgrounds.

But smaller ones near big parks like Itasca may will face service cuts, Nelson said.

"We won't do as much at each and every park," he said. "We'll specialize."

A search for new partners

A lot depends on how much help the DNR will get from local governments, volunteer organizations and nonprofits. Nelson said that the DNR will be asking them to take on more of the work traditionally done by employees, which make up 80 percent of state park costs.

The classic example of such an arrangement is the Minnesota Conservation Corps, part of the federal AmeriCorps program, which trains young adults in conservation and natural resource management.

Until 2003, the program was part of the DNR, and each year it employed only 130 people. It was cut from the DNR under former Gov. Jesse Ventura, and it grew into a vastly larger, free-standing nonprofit. Today, each year some 420 teenagers and young adults embark on trail building, bridge building, invasive species removal and other projects for nine months of the year in all sorts of publicly held lands across the state. But the DNR, by far, is still the Conservation Corps' biggest customer, said Len Price, the corps' executive director. And it may become a bigger one yet.

"We could be part of that solution," Price said. "We can because we are a cost-effective labor force."

Indeed. It charges the DNR about $4,000 to $4,500 per week per project, which covers labor and equipment. The young adults earn about $1,200 per month -- paid with federal tax dollars through AmeriCorps -- plus a tuition stipend of $4,000 or $5,000 they can use for college or graduate school. Separately, the teenagers work for eight weeks during the summer, and walk away with $1,200 to $1,300 in their pockets.

But those kinds of arrangements will not change the fundamental problem of funding, said national experts. State parks are going through a critical time, and each state has to make difficult decisions about how valuable they are.

Parks top the hit list

"All state discretionary spending is at risk, and parks are often at the top of their hit list," said Richard Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association. As state general fund dollars are squeezed, "they are the easiest place to take a bite."

Several states, including Michigan and Washington, already have stopped paying for parks through their general funds. Last year the governor of Idaho proposed eliminating the parks department altogether, a plan that died in the face of fierce resistance. Arizona and Florida might privatize their park operations, and in other states local governments have taken over maintenance.

"Some systems are doing what was unthinkable a few years ago," Dolesh said. "It's inevitable that we will see state parks close in the next budget cycle."

And what happens after that? The "for sale" sign goes up, he said, because at that point they are dead assets.

Often lost in the rush to cut, however, are the economic consequences. State parks are moneymakers.

The National Association of State Park Directors estimates that every dollar spent on state parks results in an $8 return in tourism dollars -- much of it spent in local communities. In Minnesota, 25 percent of tourism dollars are spent on outdoor recreation, some of the $11.5 million the parks collect in entrance and camping fees that go back to operation.

"State parks and outdoor recreation contribute to our sense of place," said Ingrid Schneider, a University of Minnesota business professor who studies tourism and state park use. "That's apparent in our license plates," which tout the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

License tab check-off fees?

State park systems everywhere are getting increasingly creative in finding new streams of funding. Florida may turn over campgrounds in 50 parks to private operators. Georgia has spiffed up its facilities and turned them into profitable enterprises.

But the one that has Nelson and other state officials most intrigued is a variety of annual license tab check-off fees being used in Michigan, Montana and other places. It's similar to the Minnesota "chickadee checkoff" on state income tax forms, donations that go to the DNR's non-game wildlife programs. Citizens can choose whether or not pay $6 or $10 per year when they renew their license tabs that would give them 12 months of access to all state parks.

States have had different degrees of success. Michigan, which stopped funding state parks in 2004, launched its Recreation Passport program last fall, and has so far sold about a million at $10 each.

Montana, however, has had 80 to 90 percent participation for its similar program. But it's an opt-out system, so people are automatically charged the annual fee unless they opt not to pay it. Those generate a lot more income, but can be harder to sell to the public if people feel they are not voluntary, experts said.

Minnesotans already have voted overwhelmingly to pay for natural resources through the Legacy Amendment to the state constitution in 2008, which dedicates a three-eighths-of-a-cent sales tax to the outdoors, clean water and the arts.

In the past decade, $14 million of state lottery money dedicated to the environment and natural resources has gone to the parks, primarily for land acquisition.

But neither of those sources can be used to pay the people to clean the toilets and shush loud campers. Nelson said a license tab program would have to generate $20 million a year to offset expected cuts in state budget support.

But such plans are a heck of a gamble for a state's most treasured assets, said Dolesh of the national parks group.

"It doesn't seem prudent or responsible" to depend on that source of revenue for state parks, he said, and expect "they would be there for the next generation."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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