After an unusually busy yet costly 2020, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking for an increase to fees for the state’s parks, including local ones, in order to cover a budgetary deficit.
Rachel Hopper, visitor services and outreach manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division, noted that if approved, the increase would be the first since 2017. That year, annual state park permit fees rose from $25 to $35 and the daily permit fee rose from $5 to $7.
This year’s proposed increase would be similar in size, boosting annual fees from $35 to $45 and daily fees from $7 to $10. Yet while the proposed fee hike is modest, it would represent a doubling of park fees compared to just five years ago.
The proposal is one of a number of revenue-increasing measures tucked into Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed budget. Touted as an “economic recovery” budget, it called for more revenue to cover a $1.3 billion projected deficit while boosting spending in areas like education and child care.
Republican leaders in the state legislature have been quick to blast the overall proposal as too expensive, and the Center for the American Experiment, a Golden Valley-based conservative think tank, criticized DNR and its proposed fee increase.
According to Tom Steward, the Center’s Government Accountability Reporter, the proposed fee hike doesn’t square with a recent DNR report which pledges to make parks more accessible, especially for people of color, low income Minnesotans and other marginalized groups.
“If the DNR really wants more Minnesotans to enjoy the outdoors, they might consider cutting fees and divisive task forces that drive up the agency’s budget and the cost to all Minnesotans who use the parks,” he said.
Hoppner defended the fee increase as much needed to help the parks department retain existing levels of service while remaining financially sufficient. If it’s approved, the DNR’s projections suggest the current $1.9 million deficit would become a $700,000 surplus.
The proposed increase is at least somewhat correlated with a dramatic increase in park usage. According to Hoppner, overall park visitation increased by about 25% from 2019 to 2020, after increasing by 25% over the 15 years prior.
On the flip side, restrictions on camping and lodging implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the ability of state parks to rely on a key source of revenue that would normally help to offset the costs of increased attendance.
Those trends didn’t affect all state parks the same, however. While Nerstrand Big Woods State Park saw a particularly dramatic increase in usage, recent trends at Rice Lake State Park, traditionally one of the area’s quieter state parks, have been more modest.
The DNR’s local Area Parks and Trails Supervisor Joel Wagner said the slight increase in day traffic at Rice Lake was offset by a slight decrease in camping.
“It pretty much balanced out, so we didn’t necessarily see an increase in attendance overall,” he said.
Likewise, reduced staffing plans at Rice Lake helped to offset the decline in revenue from camping fees. Whether that trend will continue this year is anyone’s guess. Wagner said that reservations don’t typically start filling up until about 45 days in advance.
“Once we get past Memorial Day weekend, we’ll hopefully start to see things pick up,” he said. “It’s a little early to make that judgment yet.”