For Minnesotans who will make millions of visits to their beloved state parks this year, budget proposals moving through the Republican-controlled Legislature could produce some sad surprises.
Bathrooms may be locked. The nature talk on Minnesota mushrooms could be canceled. Or there might not be any camping after Labor Day — at all or in some parks.
By 2019, state officials say, the parks’ operating budget would be underfunded by up to $5.8 million under the Senate budget proposal and $1.5 million under the House plan. Either one, or a combination of the two, would continue what park officials say is a decadelong dilemma: Operating funds for the state’s 75 parks have declined, after accounting for inflation, while the number of Minnesotans who use them continues to increase every year.
“We’ve been trimming the system for a decade, and it’s been getting leaner and leaner,” said Erika Rivers, director of the Parks and Trails division at the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
This year, as GOP lawmakers and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton struggle over transportation, health care and schools, the park system’s plea for a bigger slice of the general fund to pay for everything from staffing to hand sanitizer in the bathrooms continues to be a difficult sell — even with a predicted state surplus of $1.65 billion over the next two years.
Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, the Republican assistant majority leader and chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said he expects the end result for the parks to be a compromise.
“We are not going to shut the parks down,” he said. “People love their parks, I know that. But we need [the administration] to come to the table with something, not continuously increasing” budget requests.
Dayton’s proposal, an increase of $8.9 million over two years, was too rich, even with the surplus, Ingebrigtsen said. And House Assistant Majority Leader Dan Fabian said even though the Legislature gave state parks a one-time budget increase last year, parks in his Roseau area district still had services cut. “If we continue to just give them everything they ask for, they are not going to change management practices,” he said.
Grooming by volunteers
Years ago, the parks and trails system got half its money from the state’s general fund — money from taxpayers — and the rest from fees, licensing and other sources designated for certain things. But now, only a fifth of its $250 million biennial budget comes from the general fund. The rest comes from dedicated funding streams such as the state’s 2008 Legacy Amendment, lottery money, licenses and recreational fees. That means the majority of its money is committed to specific goals. Legacy grants, for example, must be used for new projects and acquisitions.
Meanwhile, the system is getting bigger — the DNR added trails and 3,000 acres on Lake Vermilion to its system — and it’s used by more people. Annual park permit sales increased by nearly 40 percent between 2012 and 2016. “And we are giving it less money” for basic operations, said Brett Feldman, executive director of the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council, an advocacy group.
Last year the Legislature gave the DNR a one-time boost of $3.4 million, but without legislative action, that money is destined to disappear this year.
The DNR has also proposed increasing annual recreation fees: Snowmobile registrations would rise from $25 to $35, for example, and annual state park passes would go from $25 to $30. The House has concurred with some of those, but not enough to replenish depleted accounts for ATV and snowmobile clubs and maintenance of motorized trails, DNR officials said.
Without some kind of increase, Rivers said, the DNR will have to start thinking about triage.
Some Minnesotans have already had a taste of what that means, including Fabian.
“DNR has consistently reduced funding and services to our small regional parks,” he said. “That’s a real bone of contention for the people in my district and generally for rural Minnesotans.”
Last winter, for example, the DNR stopped grooming cross-country ski trails at 20 state parks, Feldman said. His advocacy group increased its liability insurance so volunteers could take over trail grooming at three state parks in the northwest corner of Minnesota. “But we can’t do it for everyone,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”
In 2015, local communities revolted when the DNR stopped plowing sections of the Gateway and Brown’s Creek trails that connect St. Paul to Afton and the St. Croix River, trails that are popular even in winter. And there was an equal outcry when it stopped grooming ski trails in William O’Brien State Park used by high school cross-country ski teams. The state reversed both decisions.
Funding for snowmobile trail maintenance is headed for the red zone, meaning some trails won’t get the attention they need next winter.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Rivers. “We are looking at options and it’s drastic.”
The triage will start with cuts at 34 parks that produce the least revenue and get the fewest visitors, she said.
That includes Grand Portage State Park. It gets about 41,000 visitors a year and lost $201,000. Upper Sioux Agency State Park lost $67,000 with 35,000 visitors.
It’s too soon to say precisely how the cuts will all play out, she said. But it probably means no maintenance on trails until they become too overgrown to be called trails anymore. Or shuttering campgrounds for all or part of a season.
How the cuts take hold will start to become clear after the Legislature concludes its work, and by the time the new fiscal year starts July 1.
Just in time for the Fourth of July — the peak weekend of the year for state parks.