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Budget problems aren't a walk in the park
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The visitors center at Fort Snelling State Park in St. Paul could go dark if a budget isn't passed before July 1. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
If you've been following the budget negotiations at the state Capitol, you know they haven't been a "walk in the park" for Gov. Pawlenty or the legislators. And pretty soon the budget problems might mean no walk in the park for you, especially if you planned to visit a state park over the July 4 holiday. That's because the state parks could close July 1. They fall into one of the areas of government that will be shut down if a budget isn't passed. Some park workers and visitors are dreading the parks' possible closing.

St. Paul, Minn. — In the event of a shutdown, nearly 16,000 state employees could be laid off. Bill Anderson is one of them. He's a manager at William O'Brien State Park on the eastern edge of the state. Anderson says customers keep calling to ask whether the parks will close, and he just can't answer.

"We're watching the news like everybody else is. And that's where we're going to find out if it's 'go' or 'go home,'" Anderson says.

If they are told to "go home," employees can either cash in unused vacation time or forgo a paycheck. Anderson says it would be odd for him to take another vacation since he just returned from one. But he's more worried about his employees.

"I'm more concerned about my seasonal staff that depend on three months, four months, five months salary that they're getting here in that season," Anderson says. "So one paycheck is a big deal for them."

That's the case for Maureen Raverty.

"This is my summer job," she says. "I'm a teacher during the school year, so it means a lot to me to keep working during the summer. If we do shut down, I'm just going to hope it starts right back up again."

Raverty says she hasn't sought out other employment so far; she'll just wait to see how things work out.

Workers aren't the only ones who stand to lose income. A shutdown could cost the system more than $800,000 in lost revenues.

But for now, workers are acting as though it's business as usual. Parks officials are telling visitors who have booked camping spots not to cancel their plans for July 4.

But many visitors come here daily, not just on holidays. At the beach at William O'Brien State Park, swarms of kids splash and play in the water. Becca Knudson has brought eight of her 11 kids to this beach. She says it's much more affordable to buy a season pass here than to pay for pool passes. But that's not the only reason they come to the park.

"To get the kids out and be able to swim and see the nature and the eagles, it's really wonderful," Knudson says. "I can blow up a pool in the backyard, but it's really the nature."

That sentiment is echoed by Ann Walters as she visits Fort Snelling State Park's beach in St. Paul with her sons.

"This is nice. They like to dig in the sand and build castles. We can't do that at the swimming pool," Walters says.

"Parks are the place for people to get away. It's their backyard," says Bill Anderson from William O'Brien State Park. "When you close your backyard, you're stuck in your house, and you've got to make other plans."

If the Minnesota state parks close, those other plans could mean a trip across the border, to the Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin. Park worker Maureen Yunker says some camping spots might be available on a first-come-first-served basis for the July 4 weekend.

But parks employees might have less luck.

When asked whether Minnesota park workers could find open positions at Interstate Park, Junker says, "Not that I know of at this point. But who knows?"

Minnesota parks could stay open if an environment and natural resources budget bill passes before July 1. Legislators say the overall dollar amount of that budget has yet to be determined.