Shutdown disrupts state park visitors, holiday plans

Inspiration Point, Whitewater State Park
Minnesota's Whitewater State Park is just one outdoor destination that would be closed during a government shutdown.
MPR File Photo/Marc Sanchez

Minnesota's state parks will close at 4 p.m. June 30 if there is no budget agreement before then, the state Department of Natural Resources says.

That could mean headaches for campers and less revenue for the DNR but more money for private campground operators.

More than 3,000 campsites in state parks have been reserved for the July 4 weekend.

Campers disrupted by a shutdown will get refunds. Those wishing to cancel before then can do so but only those waiting until Monday will avoid cancellation fees. In either case, they need to do it by phone.

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The DNR also says it expects it would stop issuing fishing, boat and all-terrain vehicle licenses during a shutdown. State forest campground also will be closed.

The DNR, which runs 66 parks and six recreation areas, expects to lose about $1 million during each week of a shutdown. That includes income from camping fees, vehicle permits, and sales of firewood and merchandise. Campers also spend money in the towns around parks, and the agency projects a $12 million hit to the tourism economy each week.

Eric Sieger and his family, who live in Dundas, Minn., were planning to camp at Lake Louise State Park, near the Iowa border in southeastern Minnesota, the weekend after July 4. The park is known for its breezy oak savannah, spring-fed streams and purple-fringed orchids.

The Siegers just bought a tent-trailer and were looking forward to introducing their children, 8 and 4, to Minnesota's state parks. Sieger says the family hasn't decided what to do if Lake Louise and the other parks are closed.

"Maybe we would go somewhere private but I would think a lot of people will do that and it would be very hard to get reservations at an alternative, private site. And the camping season is so short here in Minnesota, it's just too bad the Legislature and the governor couldn't get their act together and get all this taken care of before July 1."

For Le Sueur residents Jessica Letcher and her husband, the uncertainty in Minnesota was too much to deal with. They were thinking of going back to the North Shore, where they visited last summer, but now they're headed to the badlands of North Dakota. She says they're both frustrated.

"I mean, we really like to spend time in Minnesota, we really love Minnesota, and it would be our first choice but we just didn't want to have it blow up."

Of course, some people will head to private campgrounds.

Doris Palmer, who runs the Maple Springs Campground, hopes nearby Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park will be open. For one thing, her campground is nearly fully booked for the July 4 weekend. And she depends on campers at the state park to shop at her store for groceries, ice, and fishing supplies.

Palmer says her park and the state park don't compete.

"We're good neighbors ... We're just crossing our fingers that it doesn't happen," Palmer said.

DNR Spokesman Chris Niskanen said the agency has outlined what it thinks are the essential services it must maintain — including conservation officers to patrol public land and waters.

"Then we have a number of other people that will be making sure the fish hatcheries are continuing to go, and some staff that will work at our nurseries, and those are mostly to make sure those fish and trees stay in healthy condition," Niskanen said.

The potential disruption comes at a time more people are visiting state parks than in recent years. The DNR says that's partly as a result of changes it has made after conducting surveys and focus groups to find out what prevents people from coming.