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Minnesota state parks seek funding increase

ST. PAUL -- Budget constraints have forced Minnesota's state parks to shorten camping seasons, postpone maintenance work, reduce winter services, and even trim the amount of time staff have for contact with visitors.

ST. PAUL - Budget constraints have forced Minnesota's state parks to shorten camping seasons, postpone maintenance work, reduce winter services, and even trim the amount of time staff have for contact with visitors.

And yet the people keep coming in record numbers, with over 10 million visits counted last year, the most ever in the system's 125-year history.

Those are the points that Minnesota Parks and Trails Director Erika Rivers made Thursday in a conference call with reporters as she outlined requests by the division for increases in user fees and the general fund allocation.

"If we don't get these proposed fee increases and our general fund request approved by the Legislature this year, we will actually have to reduce our services further,'' said Rivers in response to questions from reporters. "And that is really pretty sad at a time when our demand is at an all-time high.''

If the increases are approved, the funds would make it possible to maintain the current level of services, according Rivers. A portion would also be used for technology to support self-directed services, such as self-registration.

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The park system is seeking to raise the daily state park admission fee by $1 to $6 and the annual permit by $5 to $30. The parks and trails system is also asking for increases in snowmobile, ATV, and watercraft registration fees, and cross country ski trail pass fees. The cross country ski pass was increased in 2010, but other accounts have not seen increases in over a decade. The last increase in the state park permit fee was in 2003.

The proposed park daily fee and vehicle permit increases would raise just over $1 million in additional annual revenue for parks. The parks are also requesting an increase in the general fund allocation by a total of $9.3 million over the next two budget years.

Increases in snowmobile, boat, and ATV registration fees would raise an estimated $5.5 million in total. Much of that money is distributed to local government units and trail groups which help maintain the state's network of recreational trails.

The state parks will be opening new campgrounds this summer at the Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine and Whitewater state parks. Sales tax revenue from the voter-approved Legacy Amendment is making possible these and other projects, Rivers said.

She pointed out that Legacy monies can only be used to supplement, and not supplant existing services. The parks rely on the revenues from user fees and the general fund for operations and maintenance.

Minnesota is bucking a national trend in seeing its park usage increase. Rivers attributes some of the increase in recent years to "excellent weather.'' Longer falls and earlier springs have increased the amount of time people spend in the parks.

She also believes a growing awareness by people about the benefits of nature-based recreation is serving to bring more people to the parks, including parents who bring their digital-age children in tow.

Investments by the park system in programming to help introduce people to the outdoors is also paying off, according to Rivers.

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Minnesota has a proud tradition of keeping its user fees as low as possible by bolstering parks and trails budgets with general fund dollars, according to Rivers. This helps make prices affordable for all Minnesotans, she said.

Providing access to outdoor resources is a big part of why tourism is a $14 billion industry in Minnesota. Studies by the state indicate that the average state park visitor will spend $25.50 per day outside of the park. With 10.3 million visits last year, that represents $250 million in economic activity for the state, Rivers said.

Local areas benefit from both the economic activity and the availability of recreational activities. Sibley State Park near New London is among the 10 most popular of the state's parks, with roughly 260,000 visitors a year.

Related Topics: TOURISM
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