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Parks and Trails Fund spending

Published (4/10/2009)
By Sue Hegarty
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Nearly $53.1 million in spending from the new Parks and Trails Fund has been earmarked by the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division for a variety of improvements to the state’s outdoor recreation areas.

The division bill, HF1493, lists one-time funding projects for the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division to consider for approval. A companion, SF1729, sponsored by Sen. Thomas Bakk (DFL-Cook), has been laid over for possible inclusion in the Senate omnibus environment, energy and natural resources finance bill.

The fund was established after voters approved a constitutional amendment last November for a three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax increase. Of those dedicated taxes, 14.25 percent is to be deposited into the fund to support parks and trails of regional and statewide significance. The tax takes effect July 1 and runs through July 30, 2034.

Through targeted programs, legislators hope to attract 350,000 more visitors to the state parks and trails system and increase jobs within the sector.

As proposed, $30.6 million would be broken down for the following projects:

• hire eight more full-time naturalists and a dozen more naturalist interns;

• open or reopen visitor centers at Lake Bronson, Blue Mounds, St. Croix and Grand Portage state parks and expand visitor center hours;

• reach younger audiences with 50 MP3 audio trail guides, educational touch screen computers, podcasts and video casts;

• start a pilot project to include electronic kiosks loaded with park and trail information;

• add cross-country ski opportunities at 10 state parks or trails; and

• publish a new state map of the parks and trails facilities.

The funds would also be used to restore 700 acres of state parkland, conduct prescribed burns, remove invasive species, improve handicapped accessibility and repair trail surface areas.

The division also recommends investing in solar technology to reduce energy costs within the state parks. Solar installations are proposed at a new Split Rock Lighthouse State Park campground, and at St. Croix State Park and Itasca State Park campgrounds.

“I think there’s some great vision here with the solar and putting people to work with the Conservation Corps,” said Rep. Leon Lillie (DFL-North St. Paul), the bill’s sponsor.

Metropolitan and regional park departments could leverage up to $3 million in grant money to incorporate solar thermal technology in their own park projects, provided the improvements reduce dependence on fossil fuels and educate park visitors about energy conservation and climate change.

The bill requires that a strategic plan be developed for ongoing fund spending and to design a logo that would be affixed to signs, naturalist uniforms and other places that have received fund receipts.

An Office of Public Accountability for Constitutionally Dedicated Funding would be established and it would maintain a Web site. Additionally there would be a requirement for the regular auditing of the funds.

The recommended $53.1 million in spending matches the governor’s budget request, although Gov. Tim Pawlenty is proposing that more money be used for regional park grants. He did not include the solar grant program or the legislative oversight and auditing provisions in his budget.

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