Minnesota state parks chief touts Legacy Amendment funding

Published 9:33 am Monday, April 7, 2014

ST. PAUL — The man who has run Minnesota state parks for the past decade counts himself fortunate that voters gave him some extra money to spend.

Courtland Nelson, 62, retires April 21 as director of the Parks and Trails Division of the Department of Natural Resources. Assistant DNR Commissioner Erika Rivers takes his place just in time for the upcoming tourism season.

The extra sales tax money under the 2008 Legacy Amendment is a major reason the Forest Lake native rates the state’s parks and trails system in better shape than when he took the job in 2004. He returned to his home state after nearly 28 years with Utah and Arizona parks, including 10 as head of Utah’s state parks. Mementoes from those days still line his office.

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Legacy money has paid for updates to aging facilities, new construction and land acquisition, he said in an interview with The Associated Press. Over 40 trail projects are out for bids this spring, many to be built with Legacy dollars. The money has also meant new ways to connect with visitors, including the “I Can Climb!,” “I Can Camp!,” “I Can Fish” and similar programs.

“Our programming activities have really jumped off the charts,” he said. One reason that’s become a priority, he explained, was research showing that mothers make most vacation decisions for young families. One of their top priorities is activities for keeping kids busy.

But Nelson warned of challenges ahead. Legacy money is meant mostly for one-time projects that wouldn’t get done otherwise, not operations and maintenance. The constitutional amendment says the dollars can’t substitute for traditional funding sources for parks and trails.

The biggest development for 2014 is the new visitor center opening this spring at Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay, one of the most popular rest stops along the North Shore. The old center was close to the highway, while the new facility backs up onto Lake Superior.

“A wonderful stop for folks to orient them mid-lake and tell them about the local attractions and natural resource issues,” he said.

The Browns Creek State Trail will be dedicated this summer, he said. It will connect the Gateway Trail in Washington County with Stillwater, making it possible to bike from Minneapolis and St. Paul to Stillwater on dedicated trails. About six miles long, the Browns Creek Trail follows the old Minnesota Zephyr rail line. Once the Luce Line State Trail is completed next year, cyclists can ride all the way from Hutchinson to Stillwater on state trails, he said.

Other trail projects finishing this summer will connect Camden State Park with Marshall, Crow Wing State Park with Baxter and Glendalough State Park with the town of Battle Lake, he said.

Nelson said one of his two biggest regrets is not securing enough funding for all the 1,600 park structures that need maintenance. Most were built from the 1940s to the 60s and most have not been rehabilitated.

“For my successor, that will be one of her biggest challenges,” he said.

Nelson said his other major concern is there won’t be enough money from the overall state budget someday to sustain day-to-day operations. General fund money pays for such things as electricity, propane, the seasonal workforce and some full-time employees. Most other state park systems have created alternative funding sources, he said.

And there’s something he wishes could have been completed under his watch. Major campground construction starts this year at Lake Vermilion State Park, Minnesota’s first major new state park in decades, and the complex should really come together in the next three or four years, he said.

“There’s a sense of excitement. It’s taken quite a while to get here but we’ve had a lot of planning we had to go through,” he said. “I’ll have a sense of missed opportunity for not being around for most of that.”