Concerned park-goers gather at the Rally for our State Parks hosted by the Sierra Club and environmental partner groups
We’re well into the second week of the Minnesota state government shutdown. Closing down many of the functions of state government for a few weeks might seem like a great way to save money, especially since budget negotiators still need to close a several-billion-dollar gap between state spending and revenues for the next biennium. In reality, the shutdown will cost the state tens of millions of dollars in additional expenses and lost revenues, like the $52 million a month that the laid-off tax auditors in the Department of Revenue would ordinarily bring in. And no one knows the total effect on private contractors that rely on the state government for work, or the long-term impact on Minnesota’s economy if businesses perceive that state government is incapable of getting anything done.
As a result of the shutdown, Minnesota’s state parks have been closed since July 1. Eventually (one hopes), the legislature and the governor will reach a deal to pass a state budget and reopen the Department of Natural Resources and other state agencies. But the DNR has been targeted for significant budget cuts that could result in the permanent closing of several state parks.
It’s worth asking: What does it cost us to close Minnesota’s state parks?
The Cost to the State Government
As long as Minnesota’s state parks remain closed, the state government will continue to lose money — in the form of property damage, lost fee revenue, and unemployment benefits for laid-off DNR employees — exacerbating the budget shortfall that Governor Dayton and Republican legislators need to close.
The empty parks are proving to be a tempting target for troublemakers. Last Monday, before dawn, a group of vandals attacked Afton State Park on the St. Croix River, defacing two newly constructed camper cabins and stealing several items from an administrative building, including a bullhorn and a digital video recorder. Once the state government reopens, it will cost thousands of dollars to repair the damage. Other state parks have also been targeted by vandals in the past two weeks.
“Would this have occurred if state government hadn’t shut down? Absolutely not,” said Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton.
Virtually all Department of Natural Resources employees have been laid off, leaving Minnesota’s 186 conservation officers as the only line of defense to keep the state parks safe and secure. Normally, the salaries of DNR officers are funded mostly through the license fees paid by hunters, anglers, snowmobilers, and ATV owners. But because licensing operations have been suspended for the duration of the government shutdown, the conservation officers’ salaries will ultimately have to be paid out of the state’s general fund. That means an increased cost to taxpayers.
The state is also losing out on park visitor fees, which amounted to more than $4 million last July, about one third of the annual total. Around $550 thousand in fees were collected during the Fourth of July weekend alone last year.
The Cost to the State Economy
State parks are a significant source of economic activity throughout Minnesota. Many families that were hoping to spend their July weekends in Minnesota’s state parks have gone across the river to Wisconsin. The loss to Minnesota’s economy is estimated at $12 million per week.
Visitors to Minnesota’s state parks spend $178 million per year in the communities surrounding the parks, according to a 2002 study from the DNR Office of Management and Budget Services. As this revenue circulates in the local economy, it generates an additional $62 million in sales for local businesses, for a total annual economic impact of $240 million.
More than 2,500 Minnesotans owe their jobs to the tourism generated by state parks — and that doesn’t even include the hundreds more who are employed directly by the DNR to operate, maintain, and improve the parks.
Our state parks bring money into Minnesota by attracting visitors from neighboring states. Additionally, the state park system helps redistribute money within the state. Visitors from the Twin Cities metro area flood the parks of northern Minnesota every year, bringing their vacation dollars with them. The economy of the Arrowhead Region gains a net $42 million dollars a year from state park visitors, and northwest Minnesota gains an additional $9 million.
Some of Minnesota’s less heavily-trafficked state parks may be targeted for permanent closure by legislators who are looking for quick budget cuts. It is true that Minnesota’s parks vary greatly in their total annual attendance — in 1998, Fort Snelling attracted nearly a hundred times more visitors than Schoolcraft State Park. But even the smallest state parks are a critical part of their local economy. A Maryland study found that approximately 70% of the economic benefits associated with state parks occurs within 20 minutes of the park, in so-called “gateway” communities. Closing even the least popular state parks would have a huge impact on the communities that surround them.
In addition to the economic benefits brought on by park visitors’ purchases, a strong state park system helps to attract new businesses to the state that have nothing to do with tourism or the outdoors. Parks are one of the most important factors in determining a region’s quality of life. Given the choice, many “knowledge sector” and “creativity sector” businesses will choose to locate their offices in regions with a high quality of life, because it is easier to attract and retain highly educated workers. In fact, businesses in regions with a low quality of life often have to pay higher salaries in order to hold onto talented employees.
Overall, public expenditures for park systems are a good investment. For every $1 spent on national parks in this country, $4 is brought into state and local economies. In Maryland, each dollar the state spent on parks generated an economic impact of $29.27. The state income tax and retail tax revenue created by this additional economic activity was more than enough to pay for the entire cost of maintaining the parks.
Closing our state parks, either for a few weeks or forever, is unwise and profoundly short-sighted. Our relatively small annual investment in Minnesota’s state parks is repaid many times over: in the fees collected by the DNR; in retail sales generated, hotel rooms occupied, and food purchased; in jobs created; and in tax revenue to the state government from all of this additional economic activity. The state parks should reopen as soon as possible — and stay open.