Pawlenty’s plan for new state park drawing attention — and questions

One consequence of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposal to add an expensive new state park near Tower, Minn., is that his administration’s lack of support for state parks and trails has drawn some unwanted scrutiny.

On Friday at the Capitol a joint hearing by the Minnesota House and Senate environmental committees will examine whether it’s a good idea to spend upwards of $70 million for Vermilion State Park at a time when there’s a $100 million spending backlog to maintain what’s already in the parks system.

Park spending is down 38 percent and spending on trails has spiraled to all-time lows during Pawlenty’s administration.

The committees are chaired by Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis.

“This will be the first time in years that parks and trails have received this kind of attention,” said Judy Erickson, lobbyist for the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council.

Legislators will hear from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the lead agency for the state parks system. The DNR is also leading the effort for the proposed 2,500-acre park on Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota.

In a surprise announcement, Pawlenty said in July that he would recommend the new park. While there’s no official word on what the state may have to pay for the site, the landowner, U.S. Steel Corp., has put the price at $45 million. The DNR estimates it will cost up to $25 million to make the park attractive to the 300,000 visitors each year. Supporters of the park say it would bring in an additional $8.5 million in local spending.

There is a recurring backlog of $100 million in maintaining the state’s parks and trails that dates back several administrations, Erickson said.

Parks spending will be key part of at least two proposals before the 2008 Legislature when it convenes in St. Paul next month. The Parks and Trails Council along with other advocates are recommending some $105 million in new parks acquisitions be included in a large bonding bill that legislators will consider.

Parks would also receive about 14 percent of money raised from a new sales tax that likely will be approved by the Legislature after years of debate. The proposal would constitutionally guarantee outdoors and arts spending. Legislative approval means the dedicated tax plan would have to pass a statewide referendum before it would take effect.

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