Minnesota might reopen parks, if the state could only find some answers first


Protesters set up a tent at the Minnesota State Capitol in September 2011 to rally against a state government shutdown. (Genevieve Ross/Associated Press)

Before Minnesota began considering whether to pay to reopen national parks in the state that were closed by the federal government shutdown, officials there had to struggle just to figure out who in the federal government was available to answer some basic budgetary questions first.

“That was one of the difficult issues, was just trying to reach people” in the federal government, says Chris Niskanen, communications director for the Minnesota Department of National Resources. “There’s not a lot of information available out there. You go to some of these Web sites, and they don’t have phone numbers, and the people that we may need to talk to are not working.”

Because of the shutdown, now in its third week,  many federal employees have been furloughed and agency Web sites temporarily taken offline. The Obama administration announced last week that it would allow states to pay to reopen national parks closed by the shutdown. Some states, such as Utah, are taking advantage of the opportunity. Others are not. And still others, including Minnesota, are weighing the option.

“Our governor’s instructions to us were to take a look at the feasibility of it,” Niskanen said. That assessment, reported by The Star Tribune, is in its early stages, he said, adding that state officials may have had success in getting more information from the federal government since he last checked.

The “land of 10,000 lakes” is in a bit of a unique position. It has few very heavily visited national park sites, and even those that are more popular often have state access points. Voyager National Park on the Canadian border, for example, is largely water-based, and boaters can use state ramps instead of now-closed federal ramps, Niskanen said.

“We have lots of opportunities for people to enjoy our water resources,” he said.

On the other hand, the leaves on Minnesota’s trees are changing colors, and winter is not far off, meaning park visitation will soon drop.

Niskanen says he expects a decision at the end of the week or maybe early next week. But, it might not matter in the end.

“It may very well be that the shutdown is resolved before we’re in a position to make any decisions,” he said.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.

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