Vandals went wild at abandoned Minnesota state parks over the holiday weekend, wrecking buildings and driving around closed gates as the government shutdown drags toward its second week.

The most serious damage was at Afton State Park, east of the Twin Cities, where 12 people were taken into custody after a burglary and vandalism spree at three buildings before dawn on Monday, Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said Tuesday.

Vandals also hit dozens of other state properties in Minnesota, said Jim Konrad, head of enforcement for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

"This is just exactly the type of thing we're going to be seeing repeatedly as the shutdown goes forward," said Steve Morse, former lawmaker and DNR deputy commissioner who is now executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. "It shows once again how difficult it is to extricate the state from our lives, and the problems that are going to come to light once something like this happens."

The unintended consequence of leaving state parks unattended is one more reason to get the budget impasse resolved, he said. "They should have had enough people on staff to reasonably protect our parks," he said. "Everyone knows there's vandalism even when they're open. ... The reality is, you can't think of every eventuality."

At Afton State Park, one of two state parks in Washington County, deputies chased 11 adults and one juvenile out of trees and brush after a resident walking a dog reported suspicious activity. Most of the suspects were from Rosemount, ranging in age from 18 to 23, and two were women. They were arrested in the park and jailed after allegedly causing thousands of dollars in damages to the buildings. One person remains at large.

An administrative building was ransacked, Hutton said. A digital video recorder, bullhorn and other items were stolen. Two of the park's four camper cabins -- all built within the past two years -- were burglarized and damaged. At one of them, wooden shingles and steps were removed for firewood and writing was scrawled on the walls in marker or paint, he said.

"Would this have occurred if the state government hadn't shut down? Absolutely not," Hutton said. "Those buildings would have been rented out, and park personnel would have been there going about their business."

Hutton said the resident called the Sheriff's Office about 7 a.m. to report cars parked inside the park that apparently had been driven around a gate.

A sheriff's deputy saw the damage to a building and detained several suspects while a manhunt began on the 1,700-acre park for the others. Some were found hiding in brush along the heavily wooded bluffs that rise from the St. Croix River, which borders the park's eastern edge. "Our deputies did just a great job of going through that park," Hutton said.

Konrad said that cases elsewhere in Minnesota have ranged from people illegally driving into the parks, to locks being cut, to secured gates being pulled out of their concrete moorings.

"Someone took spray paint and added a body part to the Smokey Bear sign" at the DNR area office in Grand Marais, Konrad said.

"It's sad," he said. "[But] when you tell people that there will be no one around, they will take advantage [of the shutdown]. ... This is going to cost the taxpayers money to fix."

With the run of vandalism and trespassing since the shutdown, the DNR now must turn many of its 186 officers from "our normal role" of enforcing hunting and fishing regulations to security. That includes expanding checks from 16 hours to around the clock, he said.

Some state parks have rather extensive electronic surveillance, Konrad said, but others in more remote locations do not. At Afton, a burglar alarm was bypassed early Monday, he said.

Hutton added that local law enforcement agencies across Minnesota are stepping up efforts to protect parks and other property that the shutdown left vulnerable.

Konrad said that anyone is free to walk into state parks and to even hike on the trails, but it's against the law to drive into parks or stay overnight.

"We can't keep people from going into these facilities," Konrad said.

At the same time, he cautioned the public that closed parks present a heightened safety risk. At Gooseberry Falls State Park, on the North Shore, "one innocent woman fell off the cliffs," Konrad said. "Fortunately, we had two officers who happened to be in the area."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999

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