GOP’s cuts to DNR could hit local parks

Published 11:14 am Friday, March 25, 2011

Residents and tourists may soon have to drastically lower their expectations about camping and outdoor activities within Minnesota, depending on legislative action.

Several different versions of House and Senate bills outline cuts for nearly every state agency, including the Department of Natural Resources.

“At the end of the day, it will come down to a number of state parks that will have to reduce services because they’re not going to have employees there,” said Courtland Nelson, DNR director of parks and trails.

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Nelson experienced similar cuts as director of parks in Utah and deputy director in Arizona, and he assumes the effects could be similar in Minnesota.

Nelson and DNR officials can’t pinpoint which parks might get the hatchet, but they know parks may lose employees, amenities and revenue. As many as one-third of Minnesota state parks could offer primitive or no services — something Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) is not happy about.

“I don’t think there’s anything coming through that shows true reform that helps us meet the needs or have a positive outcome,” Poppe said about state budget cuts. “The majority of things coming through are just cuts. People are going to have to drastically adjust their expectations. People aren’t going to see the things they’ve come to expect in the state of Minnesota.”

Although she said Governor Dayton is likely to veto many of the Republican bills that go through, at some point an omnibus bill will pass with a menagerie of budget reductions tagged to it.

DNR officials are already bracing for the worst, which could be as much as a 20 percent reduction in funding — mainly affecting employees.

“Personnel is usually the highest cost factor in the budget,” Poppe said.

Nelson realizes employees usually incur the biggest cost. He said DNR personnel cuts would come first and start at the top, at many regional offices and St. Paul.

However, a much larger portion of money would disappear from state parks and mean a lot fewer employees in that sector.

Nelson said the DNR receives about $19 million in general funds for state parks, which could be significantly reduced.

One step the DNR will consider is a reduction of nearly 120,000 employee hours, which could oust more than 100 employees. Under Republican plans, Poppe thinks layoffs are inevitable.

“If they (Republicans) don’t want to raise fees, and they don’t want to raise taxes, they (state agencies) have to cut people,” she said.

According to Nelson, a loss of employees at state parks will create a “double whammy.” Not only will parks lose services, but revenue. Fewer employees could mean less camping and day activities that generate revenue for the DNR. Nelson added state parks already generate nearly enough to cancel out the $19 million in funding, but huge reductions could ruin that system.

“We’d really be down to a skeleton operation,” he said.

Although state parks would lose their recreational appeal, Nelson said the state won’t sell them. But the lands could be in for some unconventional changes.

“It may be managed in a radically different way,” he said.

Several options lie on the table, such as leasing land to other organizations, sharing land with municipalities, bringing in volunteers or using the land for different functions. The woods remain protected by law, however.

Through all the uncertainty, Lake Louise Sate Park near LeRoy may be relatively safe. It falls under the scope of Forestville State Park, which is one of the top-ten parks in income. Two new employees also start at Lake Louise this spring.

Definitive answers about state parks’ futures could remain months away, Nelson said.