The Fourth of July holiday weekend saw an influx of campers arrive from Minnesota, whose travel plans to Minnesota state parks unraveled after the state government shut down. In failing to reach a budget deal, Minnesota’s governor and legislature caused the state to suspend operations, including its state parks.
The Superior (Wisc.) Telegram reported that 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 (DNR), 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.”
With Minnesota’s state parks closed due to the government shutdown, many people are left scrambling for space at private campgrounds this summer, according to a report in the St. Cloud Times.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Shaunna Hopfer of Belgrade.
Hopfer and other family members were camping out at El Rancho Mañana in Richmond for the weekend. They’ve frequented state parks for the past three years, but this year they decided to try a private park. They made the decision in February, before they knew anything about the shutdown.
Hopfer’s mother, Darla Kimber, who lives in Hudson, Wis., said that closed public rest stops were annoying enough to deal with on her drive through Minnesota. Having to deal with any last-minute camping complications would have been too much.
With state parks shut down, Minnesota’s more than 500 privately owned campgrounds are receiving a boost in business.
“We’re actually seeing a pretty heavy influx of people looking for spots,” said Chris Thell, the owner of St. Cloud Campground and RV park. “Our business here is primarily RVs, but we’ve seen a lot more people with tents calling in.”
Thell said that shutdown or not, Fourth of July weekend was one of the busiest for his business.
Kevin Ward, a manager at El Rancho Mañana, said he was able to squeeze 10-15 extra campers in during the weekend for people who planned to stay at a state park.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries about availability,” Ward said.
Ward also said he heard that people with reservations at state parks were caught in a Catch-22 because if they decided to pack up, and the shutdown was called off, they were out of luck.
“For those that had reservations (at a state park), it’s tough because they couldn’t plan for it,” Ward said. “I really feel for anybody that had a family vacation planned.”
While unfortunate for campers, the shutdown gives private campsites the upper hand.
“I would think it’s going to help our business some,” Ward said. “We are one of the few businesses that are in direct competition with the state.”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Thell said when asked if a long-term shutdown will benefit his business. “It’s not going to affect us this weekend as much, but more so in the future.”
Both Thell and Ward agreed that it’s one of the worst times for the shutdown to occur considering the hit to tourism in the state.
“I think it’s being used to get the attention of the public,” Ward said of the shutdown. “It puts a lot of private sector business in question. Why can’t the government work something out?”
All of Minnesota’s 74 state parks and recreation areas were closed as of 4 p.m. Thursday (June 30) because of a budget impasse and an impending state government shutdown today, according to a report in the Duluth News Tribune.
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.
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.
State parks and recreation areas are prepared to reopen as quickly as possible if a budget deal is reached, said Chris Niskanen, Department of Natural Resources (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.”
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.
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.