Up to 10 Minnesota state parks might have to be mothballed until state finances improve under funding cuts included in Republican-backed environmental bills approved by the Minnesota House and Senate, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials said.
Under the plan, the parks would remain open but campgrounds and buildings probably would be closed and unstaffed, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Since operating costs vary from park to park, DNR officials said they are uncertain how many parks would be affected by the proposed cuts.
“One may cost $30,000 (a year to operate), while another may cost $1.5 million,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr told the Star Tribune.
“Tower-Soudan Underground Mine, for example, is very expensive to operate, but it provides a very unique visitor experience. We could close Itasca State Park and Tower-Soudan, and that would take care of (the cuts),” he said. “Or we could close 10 smaller parks.”
The Senate approved its bill 37-28 Tuesday (March 29), and the House vote was 72-57. The House included an amendment that would prevent the closing of any of the state’s 74 parks, but the Star Tribune reports a third of state parks could see their hours and services reduced if the bills become law.
The two versions now go to a conference committee to work out a joint bill to be sent to Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Gov. Mark Dayton. On Monday, Dayton rejected the GOP-controlled Legislature’s piecemeal budget approach and said he would veto any budget bills with unrelated policy measures.
DFLers accused Republicans of breaking faith with Minnesotans who have favored environmental spending. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said funding cuts would hamstring an initiative earlier this session to streamline environmental regulations, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
But Senate Environment and Natural Resources chairman Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, defended the cuts.
“By making difficult choices and focusing on priorities today, we ensure a vibrant Minnesota outdoors tomorrow,” Ingebrigtsen said.
To offset reductions, the Senate moved $3 million in lottery dollars from the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources to the parks budget. That money was supposed to go toward development of the new Vermilion State Park in northern Minnesota.
Landwehr, the DNR commissioner, questions whether such a shift is constitutional. The law specifies that those dollars are to be used to protect and enhance state resources.
“Can you use that money to mow grass or clean toilets? I don’t think so,” Landwehr said.
The House stripped a proposal to allow commercial loggers to cut black walnut trees in two state parks in southeastern Minnesota.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who proposed the measure, said logging could bring in enough money from the trees to subsidize park operations. But opponents argued it would destroy a state wilderness.