Visitors told to leave as state parks close

State parks shutdown
Itasca State Park Manager Matt Snyder talks to Curt Timmerman as he packs up his family to leave the park, Thursday, June 30, 2011.
MPR Photos/John Heller

The government shutdown became clearly visible in Minnesota's 66 state parks Thursday. Park staff closed up facilities, shut off water and electricity, and told visitors it was time to leave.

Most campers at Itasca State Park didn't wait around to be told to leave because of the shutdown. A small group of Boy Scouts from the New Ulm area began pulling up tent stakes by mid-afternoon.

Scout leader Mark Dick brought the group to the park to work on merit badges. Two of the boys are Eagle Scout candidates, Dick said

"They had a 20 mile hike that they had to get done," he said. "We'll refigure it out. Unfortunately it's going to create a lot of inconveniences for a lot of people."

Seventeen-year-old Dylan Burger is one of the boys working to become an Eagle Scout. Burger says he's frustrated by the politics surrounding the shutdown

" I just think it's sad that they can't work it out," Burger said. "It's like two little children fighting over a goal. They just can't work together, and make a final outcome that will benefit the state."

On a typical summer weekend, 7,000 guests visit Itasca State Park, but by late afternoon Thursday, the park's busiest campground was nearly empty.

Park Manager Matt Snyder made the rounds to tell the few remaining campers they have to leave. Terri Anderson of Stillwater had already packed up most of her family's camping gear.

"I've got about eight kids over at the beach right now, three generations of us," Anderson said. "So they're really sad. The kids don't understand."

Douglas Lodge
Closed sign on the door of Douglas Lodge.
MPR Photos/John Heller

Seeing the park empty just before Independence Day weekend makes the shutdown seem more real, Snyder said.

"I don't think it's hit me yet. You look around the campground and you think we're on the opening of fishing rather than the Fourth of July," Snyder said. "So we'll see what happens over the next few days. Hopefully, a decision is reached and we can pull some of these people back."

Today, Minnesota's state parks are shuttered and gated and its employees stayed home. On Thursday, the DNR employed close to 3,000 people. Because of the shutdown, employees number around 220.

The remaining employees are mostly conservation officers responsible for keeping an eye on state parks and other DNR properties, according to Lori Dowling, director of the DNR's Northwest Region. She said they'll be so busy they'll have time for only the most critical aspects of their jobs.

"The DNR is charged with the natural resources of Minnesota, and part of that is protecting it. And with a skeleton crew, obviously that job probably is not going to be accomplished," Dowling said.

Dowling is also concerned that a prolonged shutdown will create hardship for her employees.

"I've certainly encouraged employees not to stay in the fetal position, but to use this opportunity to come back better employees, whether it's cleaning their garage, cleaning their closet, volunteering their time, but certainly to use their time to the best of their abilities and for their families," she said.

A prolonged shutdown could pressure local law enforcement agencies around the state. People who have emergencies related to natural resources are now supposed to dial 911 instead of calling the DNR.

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