MARINE ON ST. CROIX, Minn. (WCCO) — With its spectacular scenery and a relatively short drive from the Twin Cities, William O’Brien State Park is a popular destination.

It attracts more than 260,000 visitors each year for camping, hiking and day-use activities.

But it also has an unseemly side. The park’s restrooms are so small that someone in a wheelchair cannot close the stall door. And it is so narrow that some wheelchair users cannot even get inside.

The park has numerous amenities that are outdated and not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“William O’Brien State Park is really indicative of what you’ll see at most of our state parks,” said Erika Rivers, parks and trails director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

(credit: CBS)

The problem is that most of Minnesota’s 75 state parks were constructed long before the ADA became law in 1990, and that means everything from campfire rings to picnic tables are largely inaccessible to someone with physical disabilities.

That is why DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr hopes to make William O’Brien accessible to all.

He is strongly urging support for a $10-million bonding bill request that would enable the agency to make William O’Brien a model example.

The funding would help renovate and update paved trails and ramps, picnic areas and restrooms.

“We want to set up the opportunity for the individual to come and experience everything a park has to offer, regardless of their physical ability,” Landwehr said.

Three other state parks — Fort Snelling, Nerstrand Big Woods and Minneopa — could be upgraded if $20 million in a Minnesota House bonding bill gets approved.

“I’m just looking to be able to have the same experience as everyone else,” said Joan Willshire, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability. “I just want to make sure I can park somewhere and I can actually get into the restroom without having to do acrobatics.”

Paved trails around picnic and camping areas for safe and level wheelchair access are also needed. It seems like a small price to pay for equal access to the state’s greatest natural treasures.

The DNR says all new state park facilities are ADA compliant. Efforts to renovate and maintain all of the state’s aging park infrastructure would require spending about $130 million annually.

Bill Hudson

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