Several Minnesota state parks are replacing old gas guzzlers with electric cars, installing solar panels that help generate electricity for many of its park buildings and visitor centers and rehabbing those buildings to use less energy.
As reported by the Alexandria Echo Press, the efforts are helping the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cut its overall energy use and reduce its carbon footprint.
“We’re really trying to take a comprehensive approach to energy reduction overall,” said Peter Hark, operations director for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division.
In 2012 — through parks projects and new energy saving practices throughout the agency — the DNR will have cut its energy use by 6% in two years for a savings of $800,000. That puts the agency on track to meet a target Gov. Mark Dayton set for state government to reduce its energy use 20% by the end of 2015.
Last year six solar systems were installed. This year, at least seven more installations are planned. In the last several years the DNR has doubled its renewable energy-generating capacity and ended 2012 with 22 photovoltaic (solar) and wind installations throughout the state, mainly at its parks buildings.
“DNR state parks are a major producer of renewable energy in the state,” Hark said.
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An electronic double whammy that has shut down the Minnesota State Parks registration system is making for some unhappy campers, according to a report by the Mankato Free Press.
“We’re sorry that this has been frustrating for people. We’re working as fast as we can to get the system back in operation,” Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spokesman Chris Niskanen said.
He reported an announcement is expected today (March 20) regarding a return to operation of the DNR’s new online system that went down March 1. Niskanen said the DNR hopes people can resume booking 2012 reservations this week following the visitor overload that crashed the organization’s new system.
What’s more, making reservations by phone also has ceased because the DNR’s call center runs off the same system as the reservation website.
“Part of the problem right now is that if we opened up the call center, it would be completely overwhelmed,” Niskanen said.
The DNR’s registration system actually has been down two months in total because the old website had to be shuttered for data to be transferred from one vendor to the other.
DNR officials said it changed its reservation website because the contract with the previous vendor expired in December.
The new system was pretested, but the vendor planned for 4,500 visits a day and it lacked the capacity for the several thousand visits it received in the first hour of operation.
When the system becomes fully operational, Niskanen said, the new website will have features such as photos of most campsites, calendars showing available sites at a park for three weeks at a time, and advanced search options that allow users to enter specified desired campsite criteria and see options at a glance.
He acknowledged that can’t come soon enough for people antsy about booking their reservations.
“People are getting a little anxious, and they’re letting us know about it on Facebook.”
Tenting and RV camping are still by far the most popular ways to enjoy overnight park visits. But increasingly, “campers” young and old are sharing park experiences while roughing it less than overnight visitors did a generation ago, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
“We have six camper cabins here at Wild River State Park, along with the ‘guest’ cabin,” said park Manager Paul Kurvers. “Two of the cabins have been here 15 years or so, while the other four were added about three years ago.
“The cabins are rented every weekend of the year.”
Wild River’s newer cabins — fee: $50 a night — are part of a building trend. In 2004, When Courtland Nelson became DNR parks and trails division director, Minnesota was late coming to the camper-cabin concept.
South Dakota, for example, had more park cabins than Minnesota.
“South Dakota built their cabins in a correctional facility in Springfield, S.D., and that was the model we initially copied,” Nelson said. “We built our cabins at the (correctional) facility in Red Wing.”
Paid for largely by state bonding, park cabin building in recent years has continued apace. Three year-round cabins with electricity were constructed last year at Lake Shetek State Park. The year previous, three similar cabins were added to Maplewood State Park, while 11 were built in 2008 — four at Sibley, four at Wild River and three at William O’Brien.
In all, 42 camper cabins — each can sleep six people — have been constructed statewide since 2008.
This year, Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill includes $400,000 for more cabins.
“The cabins tend to attract a different kind of visitor than we might otherwise get,” Kurvers said. “These are people who in many cases haven’t previously been to a state park.”
Said Nelson: “The cabins also cater to older people who perhaps don’t want to sleep on the ground anymore. We’ve also found the cabins are popular among people who don’t want to buy camping gear.”
There’s been one rub.
In some parts of the state, resort owners worry that a proliferation of park cabins might hurt their businesses. But Nelson said the cabins don’t compete with the private sector.
“These are very spartan facilities that give Minnesotans a chance to get outdoors,” he said. “We’re strongly in favor of building more cabins in a variety of parks.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) continues to report brisk numbers since it continued taking reservations July 26 following a 20-day shutdown in July.
According to Amy Barrett, public information officer for the DNR’s division of parks and trails, a record 4,140 reservations were made that first day (July 26) for a total of 11,489 nights of camping and lodging. The third and fourth highest total of reservations taken since 2007 came the next two days — 1,072 July 27 and 807 July 28, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch reported.
But it didn’t stop there. On Thursday (Aug. 11), Barrett said “11 of the last 14 days are ahead of the same comparable dates for 2010. (Even with the shutdown) we’re within 1,000 of where we expected to be on last year’s numbers. With every single park within 100 miles (of the DNR headquarters in St. Paul), it’s not possible to get a reservation spot for Friday or Saturday nights (Aug. 12-13).”
On Monday (Aug. 8), in the 14 days since state parks began taking reservations, the DNR has taken almost 12,000 reservations, with most every one of those days being an increase over those dates in 2010. As of Monday, 21,649 reservations have been taken for the next 365 days, compared to 23,100 on that same date in 2010 and 22,462 in 2009.
Itasca, Minnesota’s first state park, leads Minnesota’s 74 state parks and recreation areas with 987 reservations since July 26. Kathio State Park, near Onamia, is 18th with 218 reservations.
“We’re doing great here,” Kris Erickson, assistant park manager, said of reservations at Kathio. “The first weekend it was about half full, but the campers only had one or two days (to prepare for that first weekend after the shutdown was lifted). Since then we’ve had a full campground and good turnouts.
“That’s prime camping time in July,” Erickson said of the impact of the shutdown on the park. “We’re usually full. The campground is full, the (summer) programs are well attended. It’s tough to lose that business. But people are coming back strong. Everyone I’ve talked to is excited to come back to the parks and get their camping trips in. It’s difficult to make up that time — mid-June to mid-August is usually packed every weekend. When you’re losing three weeks of being packed, you can’t cram more people in. But people are coming out in great support of the park. We’re back to normal.”
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reopened its reservation system Tuesday (July 26) after the three-week government shutdown, and the number of reservations from 8 a.m. to midnight set a new record, the DNR said.
Some 4,140 reservations were made for a total of 11,489 nights of camping and lodging.
“We had 162 reservations in the first five minutes,” Bill Anderson, reservation system manager for the DNR’s Division of Parks and Trails, said in a news release. “It was by far the busiest day in the history of our reservation system.”
The previous high was 1,761 reservations on June 2, 2008, the date when Minnesota state parks began allowing reservations a full year in advance. Previously, campers could only make reservations up to 90 days in advance.
About three-fourths of the reservations made Tuesday were for overnight stays this year, and the rest were for 2012. Itasca State Park reported 379 reservations Tuesday, followed by Lake Carlos (278), Wild River (169), Sibley (167) and Bear Head Lake (160) state parks.
Others with more than 100 reservations included Temperance River, Tettegouche, Jay Cooke, Gooseberry Falls, Forestville/Mystery Cave, Whitewater, Split Rock Lighthouse, William O’Brien, McCarthy Beach and Father Hennepin state parks.
All but two of the 74 Minnesota state parks and recreation areas have reopened after the shutdown. Camden and St. Croix state parks remain closed because of extensive storm damage.
Gladwin Lynne, manager of the Red River State Recreation Area in East Grand Forks, said demand for campsites is high locally, as well, despite the cancellation of the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament. Organizers canceled the tournament, which was scheduled to begin Saturday, because of high water on the Red River.
“We’re going to have a big weekend here,” Lynne said. “We might even fill up.”
Most Minnesota state parks will be open for day use and some for overnight camping today (July 22), according to state officials, who said restart operations were on or ahead of schedule Thursday.
Twincities.com reported that a number of parks, including Itasca, Interstate and Wild River, opened Thursday, and overnight campers were allowed into William O’Brien.
Most overnight campgrounds should be open tonight on a first-come, first-served basis while the state processes a backlog of about 10,000 canceled reservations – amounting to $150,000 in refunds – incurred during the three-week state government shutdown.
A number of campgrounds are expected to open later, including St. Croix State Park, which suffered extensive damage from a July 1 storm officials are calling “the St. Croix Blowdown.”
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has set up a web page for monitoring the status of parks, forests and trails: MNDNR.gov/reopen.
“It’s a great relief for us to be back in business,” said Courtland Nelson, director of parks. Nelson asked for patience from the public for parks that remain closed. From clearing downed timber to ensuring water and sewage systems work, some parks will need more time than others, he said.
DNR officials haven’t tallied all the lost revenue from camping, concessions and license and permit fees, but Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the total could exceed $6 million. Landwehr, like other state department heads, said it was too early to calculate whether savings from wages of laid-off workers outpaced lost revenue. In a normal July, the parks system would bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars more than it costs to operate it each week, Nelson said.
The state’s electronic system to purchase fishing and hunting licenses and ATV and boat registration permits was running Thursday, as well. Officials said the system logged 3,760 transactions Wednesday, mostly from fishing-license sales.
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.
As reported by the Associated Press, 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, 1 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.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called lawmakers back to work Tuesday to vote on a budget deal that would end the state’s nearly three-week government shutdown.
AP reported that the Legislature will convene at 3 p.m. (CDT), reflecting a sense of urgency to end a months-old budget impasse that resulted in the nation’s longest state government closure in a decade, disrupting lives and businesses around the state.
The shutdown has idled about 22,000 state workers, halted road projects, closed state parks, suspended many state programs and hindered private businesses, ranging from two state-regulated racetracks to some bars that couldn’t renew their alcohol licenses. But money continued to flow to public schools, subsidized health care coverage and local governments, and a court softened some effects by restoring funding for services ranging from child care aid to meal delivery for the elderly.
The stoppage won’t be over until the GOP-controlled Legislature approves nine budget bills and Dayton, a Democrat, signs them.
Dayton said some laid-off state workers could be back on the job as early as Wednesday, since he plans to sign the bills as quickly as the Legislature sends them to him. House Speaker Kurt Zellers said lawmakers plan to work through the night to end the shutdown “as quickly as we possibly can.”
“I’m relieved that we reached an agreement that’s going to mean Minnesotans who are not working or are adversely affected by the shutdown will no longer be,” Dayton told reporters as he stood outside his office with Zellers and Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch. “We’ve worked very, very hard these last four days and nights to reach this agreement.”
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, according to Reuters.
“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 to not 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.