Our World-Class State Park System

tumafeature“Why cannot we, however, have a real wild park…”

Alfred J. Hill
St. Paul Dispatch, 1890*

After a camping trip at the source of the Mississippi River, Alfred J. Hill, a prominent archaeologist, wrote the above words in an editorial in support of the effort to create Minnesota’s first State Park at Lake Itasca. Today, given the success of our world-class state parks, it’s hard to imagine the depth of opposition in the late 1800s to the basic idea of preserving some of our pristine natural areas.

At that time, we were in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and Minnesota was one of the major sources of building material with millions of acres of virgin forest being consumed to meet nation’s insatiable demand. Therefore, when visionary activists like Hill and Jacob V. Brower, along with many others, pushed the Legislature for the park’s creation at the headwaters, they were met with howls of opposition from powerful lumbering companies who had their eyes on continued exploitation of the great white pines that surrounded Lake Itasca.

The preservation of wild and scenic places as sort of a community commons was just an emerging idea in 1890. It was only a few short years from the protection of Yellowstone as the first federal park and the vast tracts in the Adirondacks by the State of New York as a first state park in the nation.

Therefore, the creation of Itasca State Park was not certain when the idea was introduced. The bill creating the park at Itasca passed by a razor thin margin and was nearly crippled by amendments placed on the bill from logging interests.  Nonetheless, Governor William R. Marriam signed the bill establishing Minnesota’s first State Park into law on April 20, 1891.  The federal or the state government already owned a significant portion of the land, but the remainder was not finally purchased until 1921 after years of battling the logging companies.  The good news is this effort touched off Minnesota’s deep commitment to preserving our great outdoors for future generations and has led to today’s extensive State Park network.

Therefore, preserving and maintaining that park system for future generations to enjoy has continued to be of paramount importance to Conservation Minnesota and the citizens of the Minnesota. After 10 years of raids on environmental programs to balance budgets coupled with significant cuts in the general fund, it was refreshing to read Governor Dayton’s budget proposal that was recently released. The Governor is recommending — for the first time in over a decade — that the state parks and trails actually see increases in their budgets over their last session’s baseline without gimmicks.

The DNR Parks and Trails Division has identified a need of $10 million to appropriately care for our world-class system over the next two years.  This level of investment would restore the operating shortfall that the DNR has identified, and support the new parks and trails, such as Lake Vermilion State Park and Brown’s Creek State Trail, that we have proudly added to our system in the last few years. Therefore, it was significant when the Governor recommended an additional $4.5 million in ongoing base funding for this Division for the next two-year budget cycle. Given the depth of the hole we have dug for ourselves regarding our state park and trails operations and maintenance, the Governor’s commitment is a good start in the right direction.

Although the Governor’s budget is a good start, it does not go far enough to make up for previous cuts that have been taking a toll on an aging system in the face of growing public demand. Even with the increase recommended by the Governor, staff levels at our parks and trails would be cut and needed maintenance would go unattended. Today’s Legislature stands at a crossroads just like its predecessors did in 1891. They need to identify ways to enhance the good start the Governor made in his budget. This is a worthy challenge and, like the early Minnesota visionaries Hill and Brower, today’s Legislature needs to see the continued value of preserving our state parks and trails for future generations.  

*Quote and state park history obtained from “Everyone’s Country Estate, a History of Minnesota’s State Parks” by Roy W. Meyer, Minnesota Historical Society Press 1997

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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