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State officials say COVID-19’s been good for park visits, bad for monitoring water

Split Rock Lighthouse State Park outside Two Harbors. Officials told House lawmakers on Wednesday that visits to state parks have been up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Andrew VonBank
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park outside Two Harbors. Officials told House lawmakers on Wednesday that visits to state parks have been up during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Andrew VonBank

For those seeking some good news about the impact of COVID-19 on the state, visit a park or hike on a trail.

Once you get past the inconvenience of unusually full parking lots or queues at the entrance, consider that many Minnesotans are rediscovering the great outdoors. And that “your tax dollars at work” are maintaining resources that are really getting used.

That’s the most positive upshot from a trio of presentations at Wednesday’s House Legacy Finance Committee meeting. The subject was “The Impact of COVID-19 on Minnesota’s Clean Water, Parks and Trails, and Outdoor Heritage Projects,” and representatives were present from all three of those funds. Some have seen successful transitions to the world of online work and social distancing, but many projects were paused, especially in the area of clean water.

After hearing about how the pandemic has affected the work of artists and arts organizations last week, the committee moved on to the other 80% of Legacy funding. Approved by Minnesota voters in 2008, the Legacy Amendment devotes revenue from a 0.375% increase in the state sales tax to clean water (33%), outdoor heritage (33%), arts and cultural heritage (19.75%) and parks and trails (14.25%).


Parks and Trails

This was the biggest success story of the three funds. Laura Preus, manager of statewide programs and planning for the Department of Natural Resources, said visits to state parks increased by an average of 25% per park in 2020, while state trails saw 50% more use.

House Legacy Finance Committee 02/03/21

She cited as an example burgeoning attendance at Afton State Park, one of the closest state parks to the Twin Cities urban hub.

“But we also saw an increase in some of our more remote parks, like Beaver Creek Valley,” she said. “Some people are seeking a more rustic experience. … We hope it’s not just a one-year spike in attendance.”

Like all of the funds, Parks and Trails was asked to reduce Legacy spending by 12%. Preus said they delayed some projects under design and paused some popular programs.

Renee Mattson, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, said communication and coordination between park systems was at a new high, leading to shared forums on cleaning protocols, crowd control and establishing campground reopening guidelines. As for cuts, Mattson said they were concentrated in three large projects they chose to delay.

Lisa Barajas, community development director for the Metropolitan Council, said some Twin Cities-area parks and trails have shown 200% increases in use over 2019. Biking and walking are the most popular activities, with some parks closing adjoining roads for safer distancing.


Clean Water

No Legacy fund has been more affected by the pandemic than the Clean Water Fund. Most of the projects involving monitoring water quality, implementing new rules and testing, and reaching out to farmers about nitrate contamination, were slowed or put on hold.

Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner of the Pollution Control Agency and a member of the Clean Water Fund’s Interagency Coordination Team, said all field work was paused between March and May 2020. Hence, data from that period is now deemed “estimated,” and most samples from the spring snow melt weren’t collected.

“The big flush in the spring usually lets us track long-term trends,” Kessler said.

With the added complication of resistance to home visits for testing private wells, less than 50% of surface and groundwater monitoring was completed. Monitoring by boat collected 60% fewer spring samples.

Among the Clean Water Fund projects delayed were a work plan on microplastics in water and University of Minnesota research on storm water management. Kessler said many staff from the Department of Health’s environmental health division had their work shifted from clean water projects to more direct COVID-19-related work because of their experience and training in dealing with public health emergencies.

Kessler said the forced reductions in Legacy funding led to delays or reduced scope in analyzing watersheds and fewer grants for things like septic system fixes and storm water treatment.


Outdoor Heritage

“Delays are the No. 1 challenge,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, “and extensions are the best way to deal with those.”

Johnson said the Legislature added extensions to fiscal years for appropriations last year, and they will look at eight to 10 more extension requests this session. He said there has been a bottleneck at agencies, but “once they get the green light, they’re getting the work done.”

Greg Hoch, prairie habitat supervisor for the DNR, said the 2020 proscribed burn season was cancelled, but crews instead completed fire assessments and built firebreaks in the northwest part of the state. Many were able to complete online coursework and equipment certifications that wouldn’t have been possible while working on other projects, he added.

Wayne Ostlie, director of land protection for the Minnesota Land Trust, said land owner outreach has been the most impacted part of their operation, but there’s “more interest in conservation easements than ever before.” He added “the Land Trust is on pace for a record year in acres protected.”

Kathy Varble, the DNR’s Conservation Partners Legacy grant coordinator, said work was hampered by burn bans and larger contractors struggling to keep their crews staffed, as many contractors were deemed non-essential.

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