DNR proposes state park fee hike to help plug budget deficit

Visitors to Tettegouche State Park cross the suspension bridge.
Visitors to Tettegouche State Park cross the suspension bridge over the Baptism River just before it reaches the park's High Falls on June 28, 2019.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2019

Those looking to explore one of Minnesota’s 75 state parks will have to pay more in entrance fees, if a budget proposal released this week by Gov. Tim Walz is ultimately approved.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is proposing to hike annual state park vehicle permit fees from $35 to $45. The daily permit cost would increase from $7 to $10.

The fee increases would raise about $2.6 million in additional revenue, according to Erika Rivers, who directs the Minnesota DNR’s parks and trails division.

Rivers said that funding would plug an annual structural deficit the parks face of about $1.9 million.

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“If we had another option here, we would be pursuing it. It's never our preference to raise fees if we don't have to,” said Rivers. “Unfortunately, the fee increases at this point are necessary. We're doing we think as little as possible here to just make ends meet.”

Without the fee increases, the state’s park account is scheduled to go into the red by the end of the 2023 fiscal year, something the DNR warns would result in shortened camping seasons, less frequent bathroom cleanings, and other reductions in services.

The DNR last raised park fees in 2018, when the cost of an annual pass went from $25 to $35, and daily fees were increased from $5 to $7. That was the first fee hike in more than a decade.

Rivers said in recent years the state parks have had to rely more on user fees and less on general fund revenues from the state, which has drawn down park reserves and led to the rate hike proposals.

Meanwhile, state parks were more popular than ever last year, as people flocked outdoors during the pandemic. Visitation at state parks near urban areas spiked 60 percent in 2020; statewide visitation increased nearly 25 percent.

Annual park permit sales also jumped about 40 percent. But because campgrounds weren’t allowed to open for several weeks during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, camping revenues decreased 28 percent. Overall, state park revenues dropped 2.6 percent.

“We know that [state parks] are highly valued by those that use them,” said Rivers. “And so we know we need to make this investment in order to provide the services people want, and demand, frankly, from their state park system.”