DNR commissioner: Minnesota parks need boost from users, taxpayers
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking for modest fee and general fund increases for the state parks and trails system during the 2017 legislative session, and I want readers to know why it's important to make an investment in these special places.
For more than 125 years, Minnesota's state parks, trails and public water accesses have served as an outstanding asset to Minnesotans and visitors to our state, providing recreational access, activities and programs; support to local economies; and the ability to simply take a break from everyday life during all four seasons.
They are also core pillars of the state's $13.6 billion tourism industry, playing host to some 10.3 million park visitors and 1.8 million summer trail users.
Local spending in Greater Minnesota communities from park visitors is about $25.50 per person, per day, totaling $246 million each year.
In our 75 parks and along thousands of miles of trails, Minnesotans can experience the peace and well-being associated with fresh air, exercise and the sights and sounds of our natural resources.
In my humble opinion, a day on the lake — canoeing, boating or fishing — is nature's best form of stress management.
But even natural beauty requires maintenance. Without careful management and upkeep, the woods, prairies and waterways would fill with invasive species, while time and the elements would reclaim the buildings, trails, boat access ramps and roads in our parks.
Maintaining state parks and trails is a huge job for the DNR, with 75 state parks and recreation areas, 60 state multi-purpose and water trails, thousands of miles of user-supported snowmobile and off-highway vehicle trails and more than 2,000 boat ramps and fishing piers.
Managing these assets is like running 75 small cities and thousands of miles of narrow roadways.
Throughout our long and proud history, these facilities and services have been funded through a combination of tax dollars and modest user fees. A core value of Minnesota's system has been to provide open or low-cost access to these recreational resources so all people could enjoy them.
While the popularity of the state parks has been increasing annually — for example, demand for single-day vehicle entrance permits has increased 34 percent since 2012 — the majority of user fees have remained stagnant for more than a decade.
To help bridge the funding gap, we have had to shorten camping seasons, decrease office hours and reduce the frequency of trail maintenance and grooming.
These stop-gaps need a sustainable fix, especially at a time when visitor numbers and expectations are rising. Warmer weather prompts more — not fewer — visits to state parks, trails and boat accesses. Customers want the DNR to extend seasons, not shorten them.
At current funding levels, we simply do not have the resources to meet that demand.
What we can do is this: seek a permanent general fund (tax dollars) adjustment to replace the previous one-time fixes to the Parks and Trails budget, and ask users to pay a little more in fees. About 85 percent of DNR funding comes from user fees, sales of licenses and permits, and dedicated funds from the Legacy Amendment and the State Lottery.
If the governor's proposals to increase outdoor recreation user fees and general fund support aren't approved by the Legislature, Minnesotans and out-of-state visitors will see further reductions in the amenities and services the state parks and trails system can provide.
In practical terms, this means state park campgrounds open for significantly fewer days, diminished outdoor recreation grant funding for local governments, substantial cuts to trail grooming and repairs and noticeably longer wait-times for dock maintenance and water level adjustments at boating access sites.
Here is our proposal:
• A year's worth of family fun in our state parks would increase by about the cost of a bag of cooler ice ($5/year, $1/day).
• Registration fee increases for ATVs ($5/year), snowmobiles ($10/year), and boats ($1-$15/year, depending on watercraft size) would increase by less than the cost of a few gallons of gas.
• The cross-country ski pass would increase less than the cost of a block of ski wax ($5/year, $2/day).
Even with these increases, Minnesota's state parks and trails will continue to be a great value. Compared to the price of taking a family of four to a movie ($35 or more, not including popcorn) or an amusement park ($100 plus), our parks and trails will remain an accessible option for family fun all across the state.
Minnesota has a strong tradition of publicly supporting outdoor recreation. I hope readers will share their support for the outdoors — and these modest fee increases — with their family and friends as well as representatives in the Legislature.
Landwehr is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.