The Upper Sioux Agency State Park is one of eighteen State Parks in Minnesota’s Southern Region and one of seventy State Parks found throughout the state. In today’s world it seems more and more value is being placed upon State Parks and Trails – in fact, they are more popular now than ever. “We saw a 22% increase in reservations between 2014 and 2016,” according to Emily Albin, Assistant Park Manager at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park. Albin goes on to say, “The parks three tipi sites are booked almost every weekend for the entire season already!”

The State parks and trails system serves millions of outdoor recreation enthusiasts throughout Minnesota every year. “In 2016, there were a recorded 5,903 overnight visitors at the Upper Sioux Agency, which exceeded the annual overnights for the past decade,” said Albin. Additionally, there were a recorded 36,675 day visitors - which represents an increase of nearly 3,000 visitors to the Upper Sioux Agency State Park from the year prior. Albin is quick to note that the Upper Sioux Agency State Park has a lot going on. “We’ve received some grants through the Minnesota Horse Pass fund for some trail rehabilitation so we will be very busy preparing for that trail work.”

The Park also received a grant from the Minnesota Trail Rider Association which will allow for some Horse Camp repairs and supplies which will be a midsummer project. And, there’s more, “We were selected as a Prairie Pollinator Reconstruction site which is a three year process and will consist of 30 acres of brome field on the west end of the park…this first year will focus on site preparation and seeding,” said Albin. The park is also offering a variety of events / programs for campers and visitors alike as a way to further entertain and educate about the outdoors. “We are always looking for volunteers…if anyone has a talent or hobby to share, please contact the park,” said Albin. Specifically, they are looking for volunteers to lead various events/programs and to help maintain the blue bird houses / trail.

So far there are three programs for campers and the public to enjoy and they are working on getting more. On June 10 there will be a Stargazing program, July 29 features a LIVE Raptors by Family program, and August 12 brings more Stargazing for people to enjoy. Those with time and talent to lend to the growing roster of events / programs are encouraged to contact the park. It’s safe to say things are looking bright and busy on the home front at the Upper Sioux Agency State park. And through all the activity they continue to recover from the July 16, 2016 storm, “We will be working on cleanup away from the campgrounds this summer,” added Albin.

Nature’s wrath may be one thing, but there is another sort of “storm” brewing that all of Minnesota’s beloved parks are facing. While 2016 was a good year for Minnesota’s State Parks showing recorded all-time highs for visitors – funding challenges have been around for some time now. In a letter to the Omnibus Environment & Natural Resources Policy and Finance Bill Conferees, the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota expressed concerns that the finance bills in their current form would, “severely underfund the parks and trails that so many Minnesotan’s use and love.” But even as record attendance levels are recorded, a structural budget problem has developed as the state’s costs have outstripped the revenues available to provide desired services and amenities.

If passed, the budget would shorten park operating seasons, potentially close some parks all together, and would threaten park and trail staff with layoffs. Cost increases come from three primary factors – increased use and demand, system growth, and inflationary costs of providing services. Staffing, facilities and grounds maintenance, fleet and other basic costs of doing business are susceptible to inflation which results in an endless cycle of budget shortfalls and one-time funding fixes to fill gaps. The DNR has been operating under this sort of strain for more than a decade now and continue to “cut around the edges” by reducing camping seasons, visitor services, routine maintenance and trail grooming.

Last year the Legislature responded by appropriating an additional $2.8 Million of general funds as a “one-time fix.” Those emergency funds were vital in keeping state parks open and operating. But, the cycle continues. The DNR states that while not all parts of the system have suffered equally, most are at the breaking point and that any further cuts will directly impact customer experiences. In this up and coming year the consequences of potential inadequate general fund support will be felt across Minnesota. At a time of increased demand for customer services and extended seasons – current funding levels don’t provide for the flexibility to meet these demands.

And according to the DNR, if the finance bills are passed in their current form, up to 120 staff will have their hours reduced or positions eliminated, camping opportunities will be reduced at up to thirty-four state parks, and trail grooming and maintenance activities will be reduced. But there is a contrast to this sort of reality. Governor Dayton recommended a $60.5 million general fund appropriation for the upcoming biennium which would serve to stabilize the state park budget and allow the DNR to operate and maintain to current standards. There is also additional concern that the House bill disproportionately increases state park entrance fees. It is the overall sentiment of the Parks and Trails council that it, “leans too heavily on fee increases as part of its funding mix.”

The governor and the DNR have also recommended increasing state park fees, but they balance fee increases with an increase in general fund support. Compared to modest fee increases proposed by the governor and DNR, the House bill would increase state park entrance fees from $25 to $35 for an annual pass and from $5 to $7 for a daily pass. That proposal is double the governor’s recommendation and would make Minnesota’s state parks the most expensive to visit among neighboring states. “Excessive fees only serve to disconnect people from the outdoors, which is contrary to one of the foundational goals of the voter-approved Legacy Amendment,” said the Parks and Trails Council, further stating, “A reliance solely on increased user fees is not an efficient or sustainable way to cover the costs.” Parks and trails don’t just benefit those who utilize them, they are statewide assets that benefit everyone, protect natural resources, promote general health, improve quality of life and attract tourists to Minnesota.

Data from the DNR states that there are 10 million state park visitors every year, 1 million overnight state park visitors, 1.8 million state trail visitors, 300,000 participants in a variety of interpretive and skill building programs, 20,000 cross-country ski pass holders, 820,000 registered boats, 200,000 registered snowmobiles, and 290,000 registered off-highway vehicles.

There is a growing gap between what people want from Minnesota State Parks and Trails and the resources available to the DNR to provide.All combined, the Southern region delivers $42 million in annual state park trip spending and produces 3,700 jobs statewide.

For 125 years Minnesota’s state parks and trails have provided affordable access to the outdoors, promoted health and well-being, helped to support strong local economies and most importantly have helped to create new stewards of the natural world by introducing the next generation to the outdoors. www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/upper_sioux_agency or call the office at (320) 564-4777.