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Minnesotans speak with regional accents when it comes to parks and trails

Dana Christenson of Willmar spends part of Sunday afternoon riding the Glacial Ridge Trail. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Minnesotans who share a love for the state's parks and trails are voicing different ideas on how best to protect and promote them, depending on where they live.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the non-partisan Citizen's League are hosting a series of 17 different workshops across Minnesota to gather input as to how the voter-approved Legacy funding should be spent on behalf of parks and trails.

A workshop in Willmar held Thursday attracted 22 participants, one of the smaller gatherings. Yet it was one of the more lively in terms of the differing opinions offered, according to Maddy Dragich, Citizen's League host for the local event.

Overall, she said the opinions registered by the participants in Willmar had much in common with what others have been saying at workshops in southwestern and northwestern Minnesota, she told the local audience.

Participants in the rural, western regions of Minnesota were more likely to favor smaller and more diversified spending on the state's resources. Those attending workshops in the metropolitan area and northeastern Minnesota were more apt to support medium to larger investments.

It's no surprise, according to participant Donn Winckler of Willmar. Smaller investments are seen by people here as more likely to happen in rural areas, and provide more access to more people. Larger investments are more likely to occur in the metropolitan or northeastern regions.

Participants at the Willmar and western and rural workshops also strongly favored spending that was aimed at protecting or preserving what already exists. Elsewhere, there was strong sentiment towards expanding or acquiring new properties.

"We can't even take care of the stuff we have now,'' said participant Kathy Munsch, a member of a Minnesota River Valley trail riding club. She pointed out that a few years ago the region was fearful of seeing access to the Upper Sioux Agency, Big Stone and Fort Ridgely State Parks curtailed due to budget issues. Protecting what we've got has a greater priority for people in this area, she noted.

The hearings are part of a process to decide how the Legacy funds allocated for parks and trails will be used. Voters approved the Legacy amendment in 2008 to increase the state's sales tax by 3/8 cents, or $0.04 per $10 spent for the next 25 years.

The Legacy amendment is expected to generate $290 million in 2010, with the funds divided by this formula: 14 percent to parks and trails; 33 percent for clean water; 20 percent for arts and cultural heritage; and 33 percent for outdoor heritage.

The 14 percent for parks and trails will generate an estimated $34 million this year, and can be allocated for everything from maintaining and expanding trails to programs and lands in state parks.

The workshops involve lots of give and take, and participants used an electronic device to vote on how they feel funds should be spent.

The issues raised here covered the gamut, from interest in seeing the Luce Line Trail paved to doing more to market and promote the area. One of the issues raised in Willmar and other western workshops is the perception that much of the state is unaware of the natural resources and beauty to be enjoyed here.

Dragich said these and similar concerns have led many to urge that each region in the state have its own voice in deciding how Legacy funds should be spent.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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