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With a state budget deal in place, the Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks, Minn., on Thursday (July 21) was the first state park campground to open its gates since the 20-day government shutdown ended.
Inside the park office, the phones were ringing as employees worked to fill the empty campground up, WDAY-TV, Fargo, N.D., reported.
Outside, people with lawnmowers and weed wackers were working to spruce it up.
Chris Matthewson, waiting in his pickup truck to go into Red River, well, does not plan on working at all this weekend.
"Looking forward to setting up, opening a beer or two and just relaxing," said Matthewson, who was camping with his wife and kids.
The Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks was closed for about three weeks while Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers worked on the state budget.
Now, park employees are working on gaining some lost revenue. Park manager Gladwin Lynne said Red River lost a lot, and a lot is not just limited to money.
"Some people went and found other jobs.. That's what happens when theres a shutdown," Lynne said.
But here is what happens during a reopening: 50 of the campground's 84 sites are booked, and the weekend is shaping up to be a full one.
"We had call after call from people all over trying to get back in," said Lynne.
Janice and Bob Kennedy from Manitoba had a reservation for July 16. The couple waited out the shutdown in their camper at a different site, and when they pulled up to Red River they were not certain they would get in.
"We thought we'd drive down and see, and we pulled up and didn't see anyone in here, so we weren't too sure. They said, 'Yeah, come on in.' We pulled in and were the first ones here," said Janice.
Now the work is done in St. Paul, these campers can concentrate on what is really important.
"Just relaxing with the grandkids and taking it easy," said Matthewson.
The end of Minnesota's government shutdown will bring the reopening of state parks, one of the most visible casualties of the budget impasse, starting as early as Friday (July 22), Associated Press reported.
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesman Chris Niskanen said some parks would reopen for day use starting Friday, with overnight camping as early as Saturday. Niskanen warned that those were best-case scenarios, and the speed with which parks reopen could vary widely.
The parks have to be cleaned and checked to make sure they are safe, Niskanen said. Some parks were damaged by an early July windstorm; others by vandals. Some have garbage left by day-use visitors since the shutdown began that has to be cleaned up.
"We really want to manage people's expectations here," Niskanen said. "These are not latchkey operations."
State employees were expected back on the job starting Thursday.
Niskanen said the DNR hoped to update its website, www.state.mn.us , to show a green, yellow or red button next to each state park to give the public a sense of whether it is open, partially open or closed.
Parks that will require the most work are Afton, Lake Bronson, Camden, Upper Sioux Agency, Flandreau, Blue Mounds, Wild River and St. Croix. St. Croix, one of the state's most popular parks, may not open for two to four weeks due to a July 1 storm that downed trees across thousands of acres, Niskanen said.
Niskanen said it may take a couple of days before the DNR's reservations system can take new reservations because pending refunds must be cleared first. People with existing reservations should be able to camp if their park is fully open, he said.
"We understand that people were disappointed and frustrated and many of their vacations were put on hold, and people are anxious to go back to the parks. But we want to make sure people don't walk into a park where there's a safety problem or a bad experience," Niskanen said.
The shutdown made it impossible to obtain fishing licenses. While the DNR had warned that it would enforce regulations during the shutdown – its enforcement officers were not laid off – Niskanen said preliminary reports from most of those officers showed the agency wrote only 12 tickets. Those went to people who dropped their gear and fled when officers approached them, suggesting they were "blatantly violating" some conservation rules instead of merely fishing without a license, Niskanen said.
The DNR issued 120 warnings that required people to prove later that they had obtained a license, he said.
Minnesota’s three top budget negotiators walked from the governor’s office Thursday (July 14) evening to announce a state budget deal frowning like their best friend just died.
The Duluth Tribune reported that in a way, each had lost a political friend: Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton gave up his long-held demand that the richest Minnesotans pay higher taxes; Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch gave up their party’s strongly held stance of keeping state spending to no more than $34 billion in the next two years.
But in giving up what they fought for all year, they reached a framework of a budget deal that could end a shutdown entering its 15th day today.
“It’s my understanding that we have an agreement,” Dayton said Thursday evening after meeting three hours with Koch and Zellers.
Koch, R-Buffalo, called it a “framework” of a deal.
It appeared the deal was fragile, with the trio willing to speak about few details. Dayton said negotiators and others involved in the state’s budget will work around the clock so it can be passed within days. A Thursday night e-mail to Senate Democrats said they should expect a special session to start Monday or Tuesday.
Once legislators pass new budget bills, and Dayton signs them, 22,000 state workers can return to work, 98 road construction projects can resume, state parks can reopen, fishing licenses can be sold and Minnesotans can receive hundreds of state services they need or want.
Audrey Butts, park manager at Gooseberry Falls State Park near Two Harbors, welcomed the news.
“I’m completely happy for our employees and the public,” Butts said. “We’ll be able to open our doors and get back to normal.”
Many people have been visiting Gooseberry, the most-visited park on Minnesota’s North Shore, even though it was closed during the past 14 days of the government shutdown.
The shutdown has caused some parking issues along Minnesota Highway 61 near Gooseberry Falls, and some litter problems in the park.
Reopening Minnesota’s 74 state parks and recreation areas will be a process.
Eunice Luedtke, park manager at Jay Cooke State Park near Duluth, said it would take at least two days to get the park operational after the shutdown ends. Water lines were shut down and must be flushed.
Hot water heaters must be fired up again. Grounds must be mowed after a two-week layoff.
“I’m excited we can get back to work and open the parks to the public so they can enjoy the outdoors,” Luedtke said.
It could take several days for state government to ramp back up to full speed even after lawmakers pass specific agency budgets and the governor signs them into law, according to the Minnesota Management and Budget office website.
Each state agency will determine how they will notify employees of a recall to work after the shutdown ends. Then, under a pre-arranged agreement between the state and state employee unions before the shutdown hit, employees have no more than three days to get back to work.
With campers being turned away from Minnesota's state parks, private campgrounds and resorts are showing slight benefits in the wake of the state's government shutdown, Reuters reported.
"It isn't hurting. It's been helping us a little bit," said Carol Nelson, a co-owner of the 125-site Vagabond Village Campground near Itasca State Park, home of the Mississippi River's headwaters.
"Hopefully it will help other private campgrounds pay their bills."
As Minnesota's budget impasse reaches a week, state parks and other services deemed non-essential have been shuttered while politicians try to bridge a $1.4 billion budget gap.
At Itasca State Park, that means 237 campsites and 53 cabins have been vacant since July 1. Explore Minnesota Tourism, the state-run organization that monitors the industry, cannot comment because it too has been closed.
The state parks lose an estimated $1 million a week in revenue from summer visitors with the shutdown, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
The campers slated to stay at Itasca and the other state parks with campsites have had to scrap plans, wait or find scarce alternatives at some already popular private campsites.
More campers have called Vagabond about vacancies, but most have taken a wait-and-see approach to their upcoming trips to northern Minnesota and haven't booked in droves, Nelson said.
"They are taking a chance," Nelson said of the possibility of a compromise at the Capitol.
Privately owned Camp Itasca, less than a mile from the state park, receives overflow referrals when the state park is operating. Since the shutdown, Camp Itasca has maintained the status quo.
"They will make reservations with us and cancel with them," Camp Itasca co-owner Craig Burslie said.
On the holiday weekend, Camp Itasca filled 40 of its 50 campsites, which is at its five-year average, Burslie said.
While the shutdown might bring some customers to private campsites, it might also be keeping others away.
Burslie said an Illinois man called Wednesday to talk about a possible road trip to Minnesota, but the shutdown gave him second thoughts.
"If the visitor center and the gift shop aren't open (at Itasca State Park), he said he probably doesn't want to drive all the way from Illinois," Burslie said.
Itasca State Park might be officially closed, but a private cabin on park grounds has kept the north entrance gate open, Burslie said. He said people have been going in to walk across the headwaters, bike and hike.
"There was security in there, but as long as you didn't drive on the barricaded roads, there wasn't a problem with people being in there," Burslie said. "I talked to people in there, and … they kind have had it to themselves."
But recent vandalism reported at other state parks this week could alter that impromptu accessibility, and make it less appealing to stay at nearby campsites.
Extensive damage was reported to three buildings at Afton State Park over the Fourth of July weekend and a dozen people were taken into custody. Other state parks have reported broken gates, graffiti and people camping illegally.
County-owned Long Lake Park and Campground, five miles from Itasca, has fielded about 100 calls in the last 10 days, but they are already booked most weekends, manager Ann Person said. The only impact would be if the campers came during the less-busy weeknights.
"Another impact is dealing with the frustration of the customers," Person said. "They were chagrined that they were shut out."
One disgruntled customer asked Person not to charge him sales tax on his bill.
"I said, 'Gee, I'm sorry. That's state law,'" Person said. "He said, 'Well, if the government is shut down, I don't see how they can collect it.' We had a good chuckle, and he paid his sales tax."
The Fourth of July holiday weekend saw an influx of campers arrive in Wisconsin from Minnesota, whose travel plans to Minnesota state parks unraveled after the state government shutdown.
In failing to reach a budget deal, Minnesota’s governor and legislature caused the state to suspend operations, including its state parks, the Superior Telegram reported.
Wisconsin campground owners say the turn of events left many outdoor buffs in Minnesota without a place to set camp, but the immediate result was a quick and welcome boost to their bottom line.
“You just go ahead and tell ’em that Wisconsin is 'open for business.' Come see us!” laughs Lori Severson, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO).
WACO has nearly 200 members operating private campsites across the state, including many in the Indian Head region that borders Minnesota. Severson says after the shutdown, her organization was flooded with “ a few hundred” calls from Minnesotans and Iowans, wanting a place to camp.
“We’re sad to say that unfortunately, we probably lost some of the folks just that could not get through,” admits Severson. “But we did our best at bringing in additional staffers and casual volunteers and workers who helped us man the phones, so that helped tremendously.”
Meanwhile, Bob Manwell, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, says it doesn’t look like there was any immediate change for Wisconsin’s state parks. He says most of the time people reserve their campgrounds well in advance, especially for the Fourth of July weekend.
“That said,” continues Manwell, “it’s a little bit more difficult for us to have on-the-spot data for people who might come for day visits or other reasons, or who may pick up on the few 'show and go' campsites that we have available as part of our system.”
Manwell and Severson both say it’ll be interesting to see how long Minnesota’s shutdown will last, but that displaced campers are always welcome here.
And the winner in the Minnesota state shutdown is … Wisconsin?
"Our phones are ringing off the hook with calls from people panicking in Minnesota or people in Illinois and Iowa who were planning to go to Minnesota," Lori Severson, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of Campground Owners (WACO), said Friday.
When Minnesota state parks and highway rest stops were closed suddenly along with other government services, the neighboring state to the east was the obvious beneficiary as Minnesotans scrambled to alter their holiday weekend plans.
Others that stood to benefit included Minnesota's private campgrounds, city and county parks, amusement destinations, museums, and gas stations and fast-food establishments near closed rest stops.
But for many frustrated Minnesotans, shut out because of the shutdown, it was time to stop singing the blues and break out a chorus of "On, Wisconsin."
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources pulled in an unusually large volume of calls Friday morning, many of them from Minnesota, asking about the availability of state campgrounds that already were packed, said Lisa Marshall, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
The state's association of private campgrounds was so inundated with calls and e-mails from Minnesota that workers postponed their own vacation plans to answer phones.
"It's absolutely crazy, absolutely nuts, the way people are panicking," said Severson.
Tom Diehl, owner of the Tommy Bartlett Show in Wisconsin Dells, said Minnesotans already account for 15% of his customers and it would be difficult to gauge the effect of the state shutdown on this, a holiday weekend.
"Closing your parks hurts Minnesota tourism, and nobody wanted to see that," Diehl said.
Not all parks in Minnesota were closed. Jennifer Fink, marketing director and visiting-services manager for those in Anoka County, said the parks were getting dozens of calls about campsites.
People who had reservations at Jay Cooke State Park, south of Duluth, were referred to the Knife Island private campground near Cloquet, said Rick Nerud, a temporary camp host who began the week working at Jay Cooke but was on the job at Knife Island on Friday.
Brenda Johnson and her family had planned to go camping with two other families in a state park this weekend. As they were about to call off the trip Friday morning, they found a private campground that had room for all three families.
"I'm happy it worked out," the Rogers resident said. "But, I do have to wonder what sort of place it is if they have that much room still available at the last minute."
Meanwhile, timing was on the side of one Minnesota family. Doug Pond took his family camping at Lake Carlos State Park near Alexandria last weekend.
It was pure luck that he got the trip in before the parks were closed, the Jordan resident said.
"We made the reservations many months ago," he said. "We'd always planned to stay home this weekend."
The "temporarily closed" sign hanging outside of Minnesota Interstate Park isn't keeping Amy Frischmon from working.
Frischmon, vice president of Wild Mountain, used to have a canoe and kayak rental business stationed in the state park but since the government shutdown began on July 1, she has had to reroute her business to Wild Mountain Campgrounds, KARE-TV, Minneapolis, reported.
Frischmon said the move isn't ideal but at least keeps business going.
"I look at it and think you know we're trying to do our best to run a business," Frischmon said.
But the effort may not be paying off as much as Frischmon would like. With state parks closed businesses that depend on tourism are hurting. July 4th weekend is one of the busiest weekends for places like Wild Mountain but this year is far behind last year.
"Our business is down about 50%. People haven't gotten the word we're still operating," Dan Raedeke, owner of Wild Mountain said.
Raedeke and Frischmon aren't letting a state shutdown shut down a business that has been in the family for four generations. Frischmon is camped outside the deserted state park and redirects people to places that are open while Raedeke helps campers settle in.
The pair has also had to redirect their canoe and kayak rental customers to the other side of the St. Croix. Instead of launching from the Minnesota Interstate Park they are now launching customers from the Wisconsin side of Interstate Park instead.
Frischmon said she would rather operate out of Minnesota but has to do what she can to stay in business.
"We had lots of contingency plans to see what we could do in case it accidentally happened. We were praying it wouldn't happen but it did," Frischmon said.
Campers began exiting Minnesota's state parks Thursday afternoon (June 30) as today's shutdown of state government approached.
All of Minnesota’s 74 state parks and recreation areas were closing as of 4 p.m. Thursday because of a budget impasse and the impending state shutdown, the Duluth News Tribune reported
Campers across the state faced the same dilemma Thursday afternoon as negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton continued with no budget deal made.
“We’re kind of bummed, actually,” said Traci Veek of Elk River, Minn., as she prepared to leave her Jay Cooke State Park campsite. “Like, c’mon, just one more day. Our families go camping every year to a different state park, and this year we picked Jay Cooke.”
But Veek and her camping crew had heard about the potential state government shutdown and knew they might have to leave early. Most campers at Jay Cooke seemed resigned to the shutdown on Thursday and didn’t blame the park ranger as she made her rounds, notifying all campers of the closure. By early afternoon, many of the park’s campsites already were empty.
Eighteen camping groups had to cut short their stays at Jay Cooke, and many others who had reservations for July 1 and beyond were told not to show up. The park has 82 campsites.
Many people who had planned to camp at state parks in the area are now looking to U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, private campgrounds or Wisconsin campgrounds.
“Instead of going to Jay Cooke (State Park) or up the North Shore, people are making reservations here,” said Barbara Higton, owner of the Cloquet/Duluth KOA in Cloquet. “We’ve gotten those calls in the past two or three weeks. We’re basically full now.”
The campground has 60 RV and tent sites, she said.
The Forest Service is gearing up for an expected increase in demand at their campgrounds, especially on the North Shore, said Steve Schug, assistant ranger for recreation and wilderness at Tofte and Grand Marais.
“We kind of figured it would impact our Forest Service offices big time,” Schug said Thursday.
The agency will keep in close contact with its campground concessionaires to keep tabs on campsite availability, he said.
“The last thing we want to do is send a forest visitor 50 miles up a gravel road to a campground that’s already full,” he said.
Pattison State Park in Wisconsin has received many inquiries from would-be Minnesota campers, said Nicole Farmakes, visitor service representative at the park.
“But we’ve been booked since May, so we can’t help those people,” she said.
State parks and recreation areas are prepared to reopen as quickly as possible if a budget deal is reached, said Chris Niskanen, DNR director of communications.
“It might be simple, or it may be more difficult, depending on the park,” Niskanen said late Thursday afternoon. “We have a contingency plan for reopening the parks. We’ll have to turn on the water, turn on the electricity. … This is not a latch-key operation. These are complex facilities.”
Although the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources closed down most of its website Thursday afternoon because of the state government shutdown, one page will remain available, said Chris Niskanen, DNR director of communications. That page of Frequently Asked Questions will include the latest information on what DNR operations will remain in service during a shutdown. To reach that page, go to www.mndnr.gov. The page will offer no links to other parts of the DNR’s website.
If Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature can't resolve their budget impasse, it will force the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) on Thursday (July 1) to shutter its 74 state parks and recreation areas, along with 58 state forest campgrounds and day-use areas.
Arriving on the cusp of the Fourth of July weekend, when many state parks are filled, a shutdown could affect as many as 90,000 state park campers and visitors daily, with revenue losses to the DNR on the busiest days of the holiday weekend nearing $200,000, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Should a shutdown last a month, the DNR money pinch would be more severe still. More than $4 million was collected by state parks in July last year, about a third of its total annual receipts.
Closing Minnesota's state parks, many of which are open year-round, would be unprecedented. But the DNR will have no choice but to ask campers to pull up stakes on Thursday at 4 p.m., absent a budget pact.
"I'm not exactly sure how that would work," said Audrey Butts, DNR manager of Gooseberry Falls State Park, the first state park north of Duluth on Hwy. 61. "We're open 365 days a year, so it's not something we've done before."
Already the DNR has told state park users that beginning Monday, campers with reservations between June 30 and July 14 can receive full deposit refunds if they're worried a budget agreement won't be reached.
The refund request and park reservation phone number is (866) 857-2757.)
Minnesota's state parks will close at 4 p.m. Thursday (June 30) if there is no budget agreement before then, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says.
That could mean headaches for campers and less revenue for the DNR but more money for private campground operators, KARE-TV, Minnesapoliss-St. Paul, reported.
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.
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 were 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 in Preston, 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.