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As shutdown nears, state park cancellations mount

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Crow Wing State Park
The view of the Mississippi River Tuesday, June 28, 2011 from Chippewa Lookout in the Crow Wing State Park south of Brainerd, Minn., is shown. The view may be just for the birds if Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislative leaders do not reach a budget decision by July 1. The state parks will be closed if the stalemate continues.
AP Photo/Brainerd Dispatch, Steve Kohls

A court ruling issued Wednesday outlines essential state agencies and services that will remain open in the event of a government shutdown. 

Unfortunately for thousands of Minnesotans who'd made reservations, state parks are not on that list. On the eve of what's typically their busiest weekend, state park employees may do something unusual — close up the park and go home.

  They'll shut blinds and lock doors and windows to park buildings. They'll shut off water and electricity to bathrooms and campgrounds. They'll close gates at park entrances. And state park managers will tell campers and other visitors that it's time to leave.   

DNR Communications Director Chris Niskanen said not all of that activity will happen at once.

"We're going to be very accommodating to people as they pack up their stuff and prepare to leave," Niskanen said. "It's not like we're going to pull a big switch and then everyone is leaving in the dark."

Niskanen said roadways into state parks will be gated if there's a shutdown, but the parks won't be totally off limits. People will be allowed to walk or bike into the parks during daylight hours. He said conservation officers will monitor the parks and ask people to leave by sunset.

"State trails will be open, public water accesses will be open, but they won't be maintained, and any rest room facilities or water service will be shut down," Niskanen said. "Any public land that is owned by the DNR, people can still go in and use it."

That would force about 3,000 people with holiday weekend park reservations to find other plans. Some have already been checking into private campgrounds nearby. Kim Christenson, manager of the Breeze Campground about seven miles south of Itasca State Park, said her campground is full for the holiday weekend and she's been taking lots of frantic calls. 

  "[I'm] just turning people away right and left," Christenson said. "They're even asking if we'll allow them to put them in a field, or anywhere. And I'm just saying, we can't."

"MASSIVE" CONSEQUENCES FOR COMMUNITIES

Empty state parks are bad news for local communities that depend on tourism. The DNR projects tourism in Minnesota would lose $12 million for each week of a shutdown. 

Katie Magozzi, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Park Rapids south of Itasca State Park, said if state government shuts down on Friday, it couldn't happen at a worse time.

  "Those thousands of campers that would be here over the Fourth of July weekend, which is golden for our community, will not be touring our area, will not be buying gas, groceries, buying retail," Magozzi said. "The ramifications are massive."

Some tourism and lodging industry representatives say their industries could weather a shutdown, as long as it doesn't last too long. Dan McElroy,  executive vice president of the Minnesota Resort and Campground Association, said there are plenty of alternatives to camping in state parks including private, city, county and national forest campgrounds. 

  "I would urge Minnesotans who have vacations scheduled in July, take your vacation," McElroy said. "I think there will be lots of other options and ways for you to have a wonderful time."

Minnesota state parks would lose about a $1 million a week during a government shutdown — mostly from camping and vehicle permit fees. But a shutdown isn't a foregone conclusion. DNR officials point to the budget crisis of 2005, when state park officials came within half an hour of shutting down. It didn't happen then, and officials hope the same holds true this time.