Sting of reduced gov't. services being felt

Split Rock Lighthouse
A view of Split Rock Lighthouse, a popular destination for visitors to the North Shore of Minnesota. The lighthouse is one of many state historical sites that are closed during the government shutdown.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

From prisons to parks, the sting of reduced services is beginning to settle in on the fourth day of the Minnesota government shutdown.

Families are learning they can't visit state prison inmates. Campers have been shut out of state parks. Fourth of July programs at Fort Snelling and other historical sites have been canceled.

Even on a holiday, the effects of the shutdown are beginning to penetrate daily life all across the state.

In northeastern Minnesota, businesses who serve visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are still busy. Even though state campgrounds have closed because of the shutdown, the BWCA is still open because it's a federal wilderness area.

But canoe outfitter Steve Piragis says he expects a lot of out-of-state visitors will be disappointed when they learn they can't buy a fishing license during the shutdown.

A man from Ohio has already called Piragis' store in a panic, with his visions of catching his dinner at the campsite now thrown into doubt.

"The word is out around the country. It's been national news," said Piragis. "He heard the news in Ohio, and decided to better call us to see if he's going to be able to fish. We had to say, 'Not legally, not unless you have a fishing license already.'"

Fort Snelling shut down
A closed sign marks the entrance to the Fort Snelling historic site Friday, July 1, 2011 in Minneapolis after negotiations over the state budget between Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton broke down and the government shut down.
AP Photo

The man told Piragis that he may not make it to Ely at all if the government is still shut down by the end of the week.

"The was a little radical to me -- the Boundary Waters is a lot more than just fishing. But it's pretty important to a lot of people," he said.

In southeastern Minnesota, a private campground took in seven groups of campers who were booted from the nearby Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. But Doris Palmer, who runs the family-owned Maple Springs grounds, says she's not celebrating the extra business.

"It's very sad," she said. "We would much rather it be open, and people going there."

Palmer also runs a small country store where campers at the state park stop to fill up on ice and groceries. She says business is down about 20 percent.

"But that's not our No. 1 concern. We need that state park to be open. It's just beautiful there," said Palmer.

Although the trails are open at Forestville State Park, all the facilities are locked up. The water is shut off, and there are no restrooms. The Department of Natural Resources says the public is still allowed to make day trips to state parks, but it's not recommended.

Other popular July 4 destinations, such as the Split Rock Lighthouse on the North Shore, are closed. The Minnesota Historical Society emptied its museums and canceled Independence Day programs, ironically on a day when many Americans might be thinking about history.

Even state prisons had to take actions that were noticed by the public. The corrections system has suspended all visits to adult correctional facilities.

Department of Corrections spokesman John Schadl says the three-day weekend typically would have drawn a number of visits to the prisons.

"This is not a decision we took lightly. We were bound by what the court ruled, and the criteria they gave us," said Schadl. "This is a real hardship for the offenders within our facilities, but most importantly, it's a hardship for their families."

Schadl says only critical services within the prison system are funded during the shutdown.

That includes services that protect public safety and protect the state from significant financial harm. While corrections officers kept their jobs, the department had to let go about 15 percent of its work force, including many building maintenance workers.

The department also had to halt all volunteer-run programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and religious services. But Schadl says in-house chemical-dependency treatment and other programs will continue.

"If you've got offenders who are not constructively occupied, it can breed conditions that are unsafe for our staff," he said.

Schadl says if the shutdown persists, officials will re-evaluate the situation this week and make changes if needed.

One laid-off state employee who was called back to work this weekend was a state fire investigator. Department of Public Safety spokesman Doug Neville says the fire marshal's office was not deemed essential.

But after a fire broke out early Saturday at a New Ulm bed and breakfast, killing six people, Neville says the office sent one employee to help with the investigation. He says the emergency response was seamless.

"We have 24/7 contact information for these people, so if it becomes necessary to recall them to perform a critical function, we can do that," said Neville. "It may not be for the duration for the shutdown that they come back, it's to come back to perform that critical function."

But most of the 22,000 state employees who were laid off won't be so lucky to find work.