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State parks in jeopardy

tasca State Park and its Mississippi headwaters are a big draw for tourists. But

It’s not that the noise that is the Minnesota Legislature in late March is falling on deaf ears at Brainerd area state parks.

No, it’s more a matter of the parks being out of earshot.

At a time when the Legislature is buzzing, life at Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park near Onamia and even the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in Ironton (it falls under the umbrella of state parks) are as tranquil as this shoulder season. Even though the noise in St. Paul involves Minnesota’s state parks.

Those area park managers were unaware Tuesday that their parks and others could be closed this summer. Still, budget issues are nothing new for them. And for now all they can do, they say, is tend to their parks.

“We have these ups and downs over the years, but I haven’t heard anything from my supervisor,” said Ron Jones, who because of recent belt-tightening is the park manager at both Mille Lacs Kathio and Father Hennepin state parks. “From past experience with the Legislature I know there are a lot of proposals out there. But until the gavel falls ...”

“I I knew we probably would be having budgets that are less than what we have now,” said Paul Roth, park manager at Crow Wing. “But a lot of that stuff, I wait until it’s out. Until we see the budget and everything shakes out it’s wait and see. In this era you never know what can happen.”

On Tuesday, Minnesota lawmakers approved spending cuts for natural resources and environmental programs as Republican majorities moved forward with a plan to erase a $5 billion deficit without raising taxes.

Included in the plan is the Environment and Natural Resources omnibus finance bill that, among other things, could mean the closing — or “mothballing” — of 14 to 26 parks across the state this summer. A provision that would have allowed commercial logging in two state parks in southern Minnesota and drew a lot of fire was removed Tuesday. But that wasn’t much of a victory for environmental types and potential cuts to state parks, which were the centerpiece of the Minnesota sesquicentennial celebration only three years ago still loom.

“There could be that many parks (14 to 26) that have some sort of impact to service and terminating all visible services,” said Courtland Nelson, director of Minnesota State Parks and Trails. “The state park buildings would be closed and there would be a termination of programs and we wouldn’t be collecting fees. We would try to look for other possibilities of other kinds of service to be provided. Having been through this (as a natural resources employee) in Arizona and Utah, you don’t want to jump to closure. But at the end of the day, if the numbers don’t have significant adjustments, a number of parks will be impacted.”

Nelson said he didn’t know what parks might be closed. 

“We’re looking at different scenarios,” he said. “Each park has a specific budget. It’s made up of annual operating costs. We’re trying to find a spot where some options are available to residents in the area. We’re hoping that at a regional and sub-regional level we have some sort of facility. That said, there may be cuts we endure to get to that number.”

Also, the Minnesota Conservation Corps, which allows young adults to participate in on-the-job training to learn natural resource management skills, would lose 100 percent of its general fund dollars. But, according to Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager in Brainerd, the MCC is “using conservation amendment money to supplement that, which wasn’t supposed to happen. They’re changing some of the terminology. That money was supposed to go to supplement, not supplant. But if we didn’t have that (conservation amendment funds) ...”

Those funds also have aided state parks in recent years, Jones said. And while that wasn’t the intent when the mega-fund was first approved, it could help stop the bleeding again. 

“That the legacy funding passed was a big plus,” Jones said. “It’s helped us through some tough times.

“Last year was our best year ever,” he added of Mille Lacs Kathio’s growing popularity. “The public is still coming.”

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to For his blogs, go to