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Jim and Betty Christensen of Worthington and Jeff and Terri Hughes of Westbrook enjoy their campsite at Sibley State Park Friday afternoon. Jim Christensen reserved two camp sites Tuesday afternoon after his wife, Betty, was unsuccessful Tuesday morning. Tribune photo by TJ Jerke

Parks busy after shutdown

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Following a two-week state government shutdown that forced state parks to close, campers were eager to book their camp sites for the rest of this summer and next year.

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According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, more than 4,100 camping and lodging reservations were made Tuesday, when the reservation system went back online, which resulted in a record-setting day.

The shutdown was a result of the state government's unwillingness to compromise on a budget by July 1 for the next two fiscal years forcing state parks to push campers out June 30 -- four days shy of the Fourth of July.

But once a deal was made, parks began their normal routine.

Jim and Betty Christensen of Worthington along with Jeff and Terri Hughes of Westbrook were camped out in Sibley Park Friday afternoon after booking their reservation on Tuesday.

Betty Christensen said she first went onto the DNR website Tuesday morning to reserve a campsite and the system said it was full. She tried calling and was put on hold for 25 minutes before she hung up and went to work.

Jim Christensen went online around 12:30 p.m. and was able to secure two campsites next to each other in the Lakeview Campground.

The two couples have been planning the weekend trip since the spring and with the shutdown, Jim Christensen said they "thought we would have to go to a county or private park," he said.

Sibley State Park near New London saw 167 reservations on Tuesday, the fourth-highest behind Itasca, Lake Carlos and Wild River state parks.

"Few people had a sour taste in their mouth after the shutdown," said Sibley Park Manager Jack Nelson. "We're happy there is still some brand loyalty there and we will have folks returning next year."

Sibley Park, a 2,509-acre park that sees 247,000 annual visits a year according to the DNR, was open by noon last Thursday, according to Nelson. He said the park spent most of its first two days processing about $4,000 in refunds for guests displaced during the shutdown.

"We were fortunate there was no storm damage at Sibley or no issues associated with the shutdown," Nelson said. "Everybody was anxious to get the park up and running and by noon we flipped the switch and said we were open. It wasn't too long after that and we had campers rolling in."

Nelson said the park was only 25 percent full last weekend but the Lakeview campground is full this weekend.

Other nearby state parks were happy to get back to work last Thursday.

Amy Schnoes, park manager for Glacial Lakes State Park near Starbuck, said the park saw a few campers last weekend but anticipates this weekend to be full with Waterrama taking place in Glenwood all weekend.

"The first weekend was pretty slow which we expected due to the shutdown since other people made other arrangements not knowing what was going to happen," Schnoes said.

She said the nine employees that manage the 37 campsites, six cabins, four backpack sites and group camp were happy to get back to work last Thursday morning.

The campground suffered some damage to the roads due to rain but otherwise much needed lawn maintenance was the main priority following the two-week shutdown, Schnoes said.

Nelson, with over 22 years in the park service, said watching campers leave before the Fourth of July weekend was of the lowest point in his career.

"In parks, (staff) are addicted to our visiting guests," Nelson said. "We are here to meet their needs and expectations."

But he said the overwhelming number of reservations last Tuesday was a clear indication of what camping and state parks mean to campers.

"I think the general public is really glad the parks are open," Nelson said. "It really codifies the importance of parks in communities and the state and also shows the interest that citizens have in public spaces, preserving natural resources and maintaining traditions."

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