State Parks Fall Prey to MN Government Shutdown

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Minnesota’s state government is shutting down after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement last night. The state’s projected $5 billion deficit has been looming over lawmakers’ heads for months, as evidenced by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s State of the State address, which includes an impassioned plea to avoid a shutdown (for analysis of this entire address see my previous post here.)

The Duluth News Tribune provides an exhaustive list of what’s open and what’s not during the shutdown and the paper reports “state parks, state forest campgrounds and state rest areas (are) all closed.” This outcome should sound all too familiar to parks advocates. During the infamous government shutdown of 1995, most national parks faced closure under similar circumstances after Congress failed to reach a budget agreement.

These two situations are similar, but not identical. In the current Minnesota shutdown all state parks will be closed. In the 1995 federal shutdown many federal parks and recreation areas were closed. What’s the difference? The U.S. Forest Service has been partnering with private concessionaires through parks management public-private partnerships (PPPs) for over 25 years; because of these concession agreements, a number of national parks and recreation areas were able to stay open throughout the federal government shutdown.

Concessionaire-operated parks collect gate fees and pay all the expenses themselves without relying on appropriations from the legislature. Under parks management PPPs the public maintains ownership of parks and retains its traditional role overseeing strategy, planning character, environmental initiatives, user fees and capital investment planning for each park. With the state’s policy setting and oversight in place, the private sector concessionaire would then assume typical day-to-day park operations and maintenance functions, and there may even be opportunities to tap private sector capital upfront to deploy to capital investment projects, depending on the scope of the PPP contract.

It’s likely that some of the same concessionaire-operated federal parks that came to the rescue in 1995 are coming to the rescue for Minnesota residents today. Steve Schug, U.S. Forest Service assistant ranger for recreation and wilderness at Tofte and Grand Marais, told the Duluth News Tribune that the U.S. Forest Service plans to “keep in close contact with its campground concessionaires to keep tabs on campsite availability (during the shutdown.)” Beyond concessionaire-operated federal sites, there are also approximately 500 privately operated campgrounds throughout the North Star state.

The second issue associated with park closures, besides reliable public access, is the negative impact on facilities themselves. Parks have vibrant ecosystems and man-made infrastructure that both require attentive maintenance. Chris Niskanen, director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, explains the complications of state park closure in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune saying:

(State parks and recreation areas are prepared to re-open as quickly as possible if a budget deal is reached…) It might be simple, or it may be more difficult, depending on the park. 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.

Government shutdowns are an extreme reminder of the perils of publicly financed conservation and outdoor recreation. On a smaller scale, parks are pitted against core governmental functions like public safety every single budget cycle. Parks are too important to leave at the whim of politicized budget battles and Minnesota lawmakers should explore partnering with the private sector to sustainably protect state parks in perpetuity.

For more on partnering with the private sector to save parks, see Reason Foundation’s latest recent research, commentary and media:

” video: Prop 21: Why Californians don’t need a car tax to save their state parks

” Reason op-ed: Don’t Close State Parks; Lease Them by Harris Kenny

” Reason commentary: Taking State Parks off the State’s Books (Part One) (Part Two) by Leonard Gilroy

” Reason policy study: Funding the National Park System: Improving Services and Accountability with User Fees by Adam Summers