Silent Alarm: A TALE OF TWO STATES
By Michael McFadzen
THE LAKE EFFECT SNOW was coming down hard, winds whipping large flakes upward as my wife and I stood atop Copper Falls Gorge. Karen laughed and said, “How can it snow up?” We have watched otters play and witnessed ice jams flow through this gorge. Wisconsin’s Copper Falls State Park was the perfect place to be at that moment. Love this park. Love our state land visits.
Hundreds of lakes, thousands of great campsites, great trails for hiking, biking, skiing, and paddling bless the Midwest’s incredible parks system. Minnesota’s Split Rock Lighthouse State Park gives up gorgeous views alongside Lake Superior. Great River Bluffs State Park is scenic any time of year, with spectacular views of the Mississippi River. Tettegouche boasts wild headlands, cliffside views and shorelines. Grand Portage sits on the US/Canadian border and boasts Minnesota’s highest waterfall. Devil’s Lake, Peninsula, and Willow River parks are among Wisconsin’s most visited, featuring towering cliffs, magnificent lake access, and more. Visit Lakeshore State Park in downtown Milwaukee for lakeside trails and outstanding downtown views. Wyalusing State Park will blow you away with its scenic confluence landscapes of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.
“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing numbers of Americans have been seeking relief from lockdowns by escaping to the great outdoors,” Miles Howard reported in National Geographic Magazine. “[M]ost don’t know that these oases operate on a patchwork of funding sources that have become increasingly vulnerable.”
Comparing State Parks Funding
Using diversified revenue streams, Minnesota funds its system at 52 million dollars annually. About $24M comes from the State’s General Fund, approximately $19M from user fees, such as park permits and camping reservations, and $6M from lottery revenue. The $52M does not include the Legacy Park and Trails Fund of about $18M annually. Minnesota passed a constitutional amendment that dedicates a portion of sales tax for outdoor recreation. Parks have received over $350M in Legacy funding since it was established in 2008. Minnesota has Democrats and Republicans working together on national resource issues, with support from communities and businesses.
Michigan’s state parks also have several revenue streams. These include a $500M endowment fund, oil and gas revenues, user fees, General Fund, and recreation passport with funding estimated at over $60M annually.
In contrast, Wisconsin has no Legacy, endowment fund, or lottery revenue. Over the last ten years, park operation costs are reported in the $17-19M range. These reflect fees collected from visitors. Up until 1995, Wisconsin parks were funded equally from tax-payer GPR (general purpose revenue) and fees. Since then, tax-payer support was slowly whittled away. And in 2015, the legislature passed Wisconsin Act 55, which removed tax support for State Parks. To offset this reduction, Act 55 raised park admission, trail use, and camping fees.
Wisconsin is one of the only park systems in the country which funds its operations almost completely from user fees. This has led to the gradual deterioration of state park infrastructure and operations. Transitioning to a self-funding model views parks as a commodity, which ignores park planning and upkeep. Also, the pay-to-play model seems to price out families and low-income wage earners, according to park advocate Bill Lunney. “Management of parks and natural resources must be viewed in a multi-generational continuum,” Lunney said. “There is a sacred trust to conserve these resources for future generations. Not all people can or will pay the fee for entry. And those people will be denied the valuable physical and mental health benefits that parks offer.”
In order to save money, Wisconsin often uses a band-aid approach to fix infrastructure. However, replacement in many cases would be more economical in the long run.
State Lands External Support
Minnesota and Wisconsin boast active Friends Groups that support state lands and trails. Each have invested thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars into their systems. Minnesota has sophisticated websites, tremendous advocacy, and legislative outreach. As examples, the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council (MPTC) has five full-time staff, with an annual budget of $650K. Friends of Wisconsin State Parks (FWSP) has a staff of one, with an annual budget of less than $100K. Minnesota has stashed $14M if/when important land buys come to market, according to MPTC Executive Director Brett Feldman.
“We want to ensure our parks are adequately funded and don’t want to miss an opportunity to set aside critical properties for future generations. We don’t have ATVs, hunting, or trapping in our state parks unless it’s for resource management. It’s different than Wisconsin.” Wisconsin has 78 individual Friends Groups compared to Minnesota’s 60 Groups. One volunteer remarked that parks are run off the backs of volunteers. Park systems would struggle to operate without this outside support.
Wisconsin State Parks and Trails used to be a bastion of solitude and beauty. However, the Wisconsin legislature opened up hunting and trapping in parks in 2016. Now it’s expanding motorized use on state lands. Hunting has been expanded in many ways while hunter numbers diminish and park visitors soar. Thirty-six Full-Time Equivalent Employees have been cut from parks since 2000 although visitation has grown over 40 percent. Parks staff are a dedicated team who care deeply and work hard to make this difficult situation tenable.
Both systems face funding challenges. “We continue to be confronted by long-term fiscal issues,” according to Minnesota DNR Visitor and Outreach Manager Rachel Hopper. “Costs are increasing but revenue is not. Connecting tomorrow’s generation to parks and long-term infrastructure needs are key issues.”
A new plan is in the works to guide Wisconsin Parks. Diversification of revenue by expanding merchandise and utilizing demand-based pricing will help the system. “We need to bring all these pieces together to understand where we are headed and guide our relevancy,” Diane Brusoe, Deputy Division Administrator and Acting State Parks Director told Silent Sports. Friends Groups and other partners are actively raising $50M that will go towards park projects.
Wisconsin Parks offer many gems. With a $400M backlog of necessary infrastructure improvements, an unsupportive legislature, and self-funding model, the future is uncertain if not precarious. A key goal for Wisconsin Parks should to diversify its funding stream and make its advocacy pro-parks and bipartisan. Besides FWSP, there is no large advocacy for state parks. While Minnesota’s system isn’t perfect, the future looks positive with a strong management group, supportive legislature and excellent funding. All should engage our legislatures to adapt much of the Minnesota approach.
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