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DNR, Citizens Advisory Group meet to discuss needs of Blue Mounds State Park

LUVERNE -- The Blue Mounds State Park may be southwest Minnesota's gem on the prairie, but some of its amenities have lost their lustre. Rotting beams in the park's interpretive center forced its doors to shutter in 2015, and e.coli bacteria pres...

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A lone bison stands in the January chill at the Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne, in this Jan. 8, 2015 Daily Globe file photo.

LUVERNE - The Blue Mounds State Park may be southwest Minnesota’s gem on the prairie, but some of its amenities have lost their lustre. Rotting beams in the park’s interpretive center forced its doors to shutter in 2015, and e.coli bacteria present in both the existing well and a new well dug in late 2014 has forced visitors to bring in bottled water and campers to leave the park to take a shower.

The challenges have led to a decline in campers - from approximately 90,000 per year through 2013 to 57,707 in 2014, when floodwaters breached the dam and wiped out what used to be a swimming beach. Blue Mounds State Park Manager Chris Ingebretsen said the 64,789 campers at the park in 2016 was a 27 percent drop from three years prior.

There’s no question work needs to be done inside the park to bring visitors back, but money is at the root of the issue.

On Thursday evening, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Trails invited stakeholders to discuss the vision and purpose for the state park now and into the future.

Thursday’s meeting was the first of four between DNR officials and a Citizen Advisory Group comprised of five individuals - Luverne Chamber of Commerce Director Jane Lanphere, her husband Larry Lanphere, master naturalist Jeanne Prekker, trails enthusiast Amy Nelson and Rock County Commissioner Sherri Thompson. Other individuals may be added to the group for future meetings.

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Larry Lanphere said he sees so much potential with Blue Mounds State Park, and he told DNR officials it’s time to do something with it.

“I really think we ne need to convince the state that we need to invest in the park,” added Jane Lanphere. “They need to have water out there. It’s ridiculous. I hear about it every time someone talks about the Blue Mounds.”

The presence of e.coli bacteria in the park’s wells - and in Mound Creek, once used for recreation - is driving visitors away, said some in the group.

“We can’t treat the e.coli,” said Ingebretsen, noting that a feasibility study has been completed to connect to rural water. If the park can access rural water, the estimated cost to the state could top half a million dollars - and that just gets water to the gate; not inside the park.

Kathy Dummer, DNR Parks and Trails southern regional manager, said Thursday the $500,000 is included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill, but it will take authorization from both the House and Senate to get approval.

Even with the bonding money, it could still take another $400,000 to $500,000 get get water into the park for use by campers and other guests. Repairs and updates to the interpretive center could cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars more, and members of the Citizens Advisory Group identified other areas that need to be financed as well.

Jane Lanphere said her hope is that the series of meetings organized by the DNR will lead to additional money for Blue Mounds State Park.

“The interpretive center, it just needs to be fixed,” she said. “It was closed in 2016, and it will be in 2017 as well. We could get a local contractor out there to repair it. It’s really a loss to the park and a loss to the community.”

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She asked if the DNR had a slush fund to help pay for some of the work that needs to be done.

Dummer said the DNR has no such fund, but that the outcomes identified from the Luverne meetings will assist the DNR in its process to determine where funding is allocated in the future.

“We’re here because we want to hear those ideas,” Dummer said. “We also want to hear where the partnership possibilities are.”

Adventure park In 2014, Dummer said the division was asked to develop a plan to guide future investment of state parks and trails in Minnesota, stating “financial resources would be limited in the future to maintain the entire system.” DNR staff created a system plan with investment criteria for ranking state parks and trails - information outlined in an August 2015 report.

Each state park was ranked based on available amenities and usage, with categories including rustic parks (among them Kilen Woods in Jackson County); core parks, which are divided into Classic parks (Lake Shetek in Murray County and Split Rock Creek in Pipestone County), Gateway parks and Adventure parks, of which Blue Mounds State Park is classified. The third primary category is destination parks - among them several along Minnesota’s North Shore, such as Split Rock Lighthouse, Tettegouche and Gooseberry Falls - along with other popular parks including Itasca, Sibley and Fort Snelling.

Dummer said Blue Mounds State Park was classified as both a natural and adventure park for its natural characteristics - Sioux Quartzite bluffs - which also are popular among rock climbers.

“Our statutory obligation is providing natural and cultural resources that are sustainable,” Dummer said.

A lot to offer Ingebretsen said Blue Mounds State Park has a lot to offer. While it may be most known for its genetically pure American Bison herd, the park has more rare natural features and native prairie than anywhere else in southwest Minnesota.

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The Blue Mound Creek that flows through the park is home to the endangered Topeka shiner, as well as the Plains Topminnow, Pond Mussel and Blanchard’s cricket frog. Meanwhile, the tallgrass prairie in the state park produces the rare and threatened species, western prairie fringed orchid, and lures in the regal fritillary, a unique butterfly that feeds on the abundant common milkweed within the park.

“We have some unique prairie wildlife,” Ingebretsen said. “The bison is a big draw, but there's other things too, like the Blue Grosbeak and the Eastern Meadowlark, which are fast disappearing because of the lack of grasslands.”

Meanwhile, the park offers 72 drive-in campsites (41 with electric hook-ups), 14 cart-in sites, one rustic group camp and three tipis. The tipis provide an unusual camping experience and boasted 90 percent booking between Memorial Day and Labor Day in 2016, Ingebretsen said.

There are also rock climbing and rock scrambling activities, and 14 interpretive programs were offered to more than 700 visitors in 2016, despite the closure of the interpretive center.

Identifying its focus As part of this first meeting of the Citizen Advisory Group, topics of discussion were identified for three future meetings. Those meetings will delve deeper into specific challenges. The group agreed to focus on the areas of improving water quality, expanding interpretive programming, park promotion and marketing - including improved signage, supporting and expanding recreational opportunities, expanding camping opportunities and restoration of the Mound Creek for recreational purposes.

With water access the top priority, Dummer said people need to contact their legislators and ask them to support the governor’s bonding bill.

“If the money rolls, we’re shovel-ready,” she said, noting she remains optimistic water access will be completed in the park in 2018.

Another result of Thursday’s meeting is the potential redevelopment of a Friends of the Blue Mounds State Park organization. A group existed for many years, but disbanded as its membership aged and dwindled.

“So many other state parks have solid friends groups,” said Prekker. “I think we need to be proactive in what we can do.”

The Citizens Advisory Group will meet again from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Luverne Area Chamber of Commerce, with subsequent meetings March 9 and April 27. The meetings are open to the public.

1441054+Bison002_CMYK.jpg
A bison stands in the January chill at the Blue Mounds State Park near Luverne in this Jan. 8, 2015 Daily Globe file photo.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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