ST. PAUL — The man who has run Minnesota state parks for the past decade counts himself fortunate that voters gave him some extra money to spend.
Courtland Nelson, 62, retires April 21 as director of the Parks and Trails Division of the Department of Natural Resources. Assistant DNR Commissioner Erika Rivers takes his place just in time for the upcoming tourism season.
The extra sales tax money under the 2008 Legacy Amendment is a major reason the Forest Lake native rates the state's parks and trails system in better shape than when he took the job in 2004. He returned to his home state after nearly 28 years with Utah and Arizona parks, including 10 as head of Utah's state parks. Mementoes from those days still line his office.
Legacy money has paid for updates to aging facilities, new construction and land acquisition, he said in an interview with The Associated Press. Over 40 trail projects are out for bids this spring, many to be built with Legacy dollars. The money has also meant new ways to connect with visitors, including the "I Can Climb!," ''I Can Camp!," ''I Can Fish" and similar programs.
"Our programming activities have really jumped off the charts," he said. One reason that's become a priority, he explained, was research showing that mothers make most vacation decisions for young families. One of their top priorities is activities for keeping kids busy.
But Nelson warned of challenges ahead. Legacy money is meant mostly for one-time projects that wouldn't get done otherwise, not operations and maintenance. The constitutional amendment says the dollars can't substitute for traditional funding sources for parks and trails.
The biggest development for 2014 is the new visitor center opening this spring at Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay, one of the most popular rest stops along the North Shore. The old center was close to the highway, while the new facility backs up onto Lake Superior.