Planners have the money this year to begin rethinking recreation at one of Minnesota's oldest and most popular state parks. They believe what they do could create a blueprint for state parks and campgrounds of the future.
Just miles west of downtown Mankato, Minneopa State Park commands regular visits for its iconic Minneopa Falls. The park is home base, too, to a flourishing bison herd that can attract hundreds of visitors daily between spring and autumn.
Minneopa became a pilot project destination because of its proximity to population centers like Mankato and the Twin Cities, its increased use and its need for more modern infrastructure and improved access on the grounds, said Sarah Strommen, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner.
"Minneopa presented a unique opportunity at the intersection of those things," she added.
The work has been highly anticipated at the DNR and after the agency received $150 million in so-called Get Out MORE funding last legislative session to improve outdoor recreation. The money will, for example, rehabilitate boat accesses, improve fish stocking and improve access for the disabled — and able-bodied — on public lands.
There is $5 million to improve Minneopa's campground, said Ryder Will, resource and asset management section manager in the DNR parks and trails division. With climate change in mind, another $4.5 million will pay for system-wide wastewater improvements, including upgrading Myre-Big Island State Park's system in Albert Lea.
Will said Minneopa also fits the bill as a midsized campground where planners can use a holistic lens. "It's a reasonable size where we can touch every component with the funds available and within a reasonable timeline."
The campground has 59 drive-in sites, including seven electric. There is also one camper cabin and four group campsites.
Like piecing together a puzzle, Will said planners are "very much in a pre-design phase" of assessing the park's parts. The advance work will continue through this year and into 2025. Construction could begin in late 2025 or 2026, with completion in summer of 2027.
Specific changes could include larger, more accessible campsites (and more with electric), modern showers and restrooms and new paths to get to them. Another possibility: a kiosk closer to Red Fox Campground that lessens the need to stop at the park office to the south and across several busy roads, including state Hwy. 68.
There are some certainties about the project. Whatever is done won't affect the bison or their enclosed territory, Will said. Planners also want any construction to minimize impact on visitors and campers and even the natural cycle of the park's environment. He said the busy periods at the park might guide their timing, with construction in seasonal phases. For example, they might remove trees in winter with plans to build in the spring or close the campground area for a single block of time over two camping seasons.
It's hoped that Minneopa's transformation provides lessons for other parks.
"This specific project is about the camping experience. But as part of that, we want to be mindful of how campers interact with and experience the park as a whole," said Will, adding he doesn't expect the Red Fox footprint to change.
Back near the metro, Will said Minnesotans will more quickly notice outdoor recreation dollars on the landscape at William O'Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix and, beginning this spring, at public water accesses.
Work is underway to improve day-use areas at William O'Brien, including a welcoming facility and better paths to meet mandates to welcome new users and improve access.
There is $35 million to work on sorely degraded boating-related infrastructure around Minnesota, too, from renovating or rebuilding docks to improving parking lots. Will said boat ramps are troublesome too, and are small-scale jobs at the front of the line. Many concrete sections need replacing because of fluctuating water levels.
From micro work at Minneopa to the scope of water projects, Strommen acknowledged many needs and said the injection of new funding is foundational to outdoors recreation's evolution on DNR-managed lands.
"We really are excited for the enhanced experiences that Minnesotans will get to have," she said.