Campground closings sign of lack of funds

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 27, 1999

LEROY – The early closings of campgrounds at 20 of Minnesota’s smallest state parks was a symptom of a funding disease.

Friday, August 27, 1999

LEROY – The early closings of campgrounds at 20 of Minnesota’s smallest state parks was a symptom of a funding disease.

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That’s how Bill Morrisey explained the fate suffered by Lake Louise State Park near LeRoy and four others in southeastern Minnesota and 15 more across the state.

Morrisey is the director of the state parks and trails division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Since the early closings -Labor Day to Memorial Day-were announced a month ago, Morrisey has leapt from the frying pan to a fire storm of criticism.

State Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) is among the critics.

"Why wasn’t the DNR more aggressive in getting their point across to the 1999 Legislature? If they needed more money, why didn’t they push for the fee increase?" Davids wants to know.

Davids also charges, "The DNR seems to have gone to the media to pressure the legislature."

Prairie Visions, the joint ventures organization of volunteers from Rose Creek, Adams, Taopi and LeRoy, called Thursday night’s meeting to address the situation.

Since their existence, Prairie Visions has made Lake Louise State Park a priority in their efforts to develop the Shooting Star recreation trail across Mower County from LeRoy to Austin.

Having a state park with all the amenities will, Prairie Visions believes, be a magnet for tourists to visit the area.

Any reduction in its services will hurt those efforts.

"There is a legitimate problem in the state parks funding system," said Ed Koppen, LeRoy’s mayor and a Prairie Visions volunteer.

Thus, the group brought politicians, DNR representatives and others together Thursday night to assess the situation.

According to State Senator Kenric Scheevel (R-Preston), the background of the issue begins with the DNR’s request for $3 million more for state parks in the 1999 legislative session. Governor Ventura’s budget countered with only a $1 million increase. "Then," Scheevel said, "the Senate approved a $1 million increase and the House approved a $500,000 increase. When it went to the conference committee, the result was $850,000.

Morrisey was candid in his explanation of the outcome of the reduction in funding for state parks.

"Our funding has eroded over the years until in some cases there is no staff to operate state parks," he began.

"We have a situation that I don’t think we can continue to have," he said.

The funding needed for capital improvements, security, general maintenance and other expenses began eroding four or five years ago. "That’s when we started robbing from one budget to keep these 20 most vulnerable parks open," he said.

"It’s not just these 20 parks. It’s the whole state park system and I don’t have a choice, when the DNR Commissioner says ‘You will operate within your budget’ and when that message comes down from the Governor," he said.

Morrissey said, "Maybe, it’s time we look at the whole state park picture. Maybe, it’s time to admit we’ve been trying to do too much."

Because of federal funds channeled through state parks, the parks themselves will never completely close, but a reduction in services, such as the current Labor Day to Memorial Day closings of campgrounds in 10 parks, could continue.

The annual operating budget for the DNR’s division of parks and recreation is $25 million per year to run 70 sate parks and recreation areas, plus eight waysides and one state trail.

In addition to Lake Louise State Park, Beaver Creek, Carley, Great River Bluffs and Rice Lake state parks in southeastern Minnesota also say their camping seasons curbed.

According to Morrisey, it would take an additional $300,000 to keep the 20 state parks campgrounds open in 2000.

"Twenty small state park early closings is really just a symptom of a much larger problem," Morrisey said. "It’s time for an analysis of the entire budget."

"We’ll continue to do the best we can with the dollars we have," he said.

Among the questions asked after Scheevel and Morrisey made their presentations was one about why the state’s surplus wasn’t used.

Scheevel told the audience crammed into the Lake Louis State Park maintenance building, "We had just completed an election where all newly elected legislators had gotten elected on the promise that they would send the state’s surplus back to the voters. That was the message Minnesota’s new Governor made and that’s what was delivered."

Prairie Visions is urging citizens to contact their legislative representatives and inform them of their opposition to the early park closings and the need for more funds to keep all Minnesota state parks open at the optimum service level.

Seven years ago, a similar early park closing situation occurred in Minnesota, when programs and services were cut and personnel reduced.

Morrisey warned things will "get worse" without additional funding.