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Outdoors with . . .

Courtland Nelson, DNR Division of Parks and Trails


The unofficially named new DNR Division of Parks and Trails oversees 66 state parks, eight waysides, 54 state-forest campgrounds and day-use areas, 1,600 public water accesses, 26 state trails, 30 water trails, and thousands of miles of trails for motorized and nonmotorized use.

Q What drove the recent move to combine the two DNR divisions of state parks and state trails into one?

It's a perfect storm of opportunities. Several factors came together. Number one was the commissioner wanted to seriously inspect if it was time to integrate these divisions to achieve more -- to take better advantage of broad dedicated funding initiatives and address trends related to declining participation in outdoor recreation. We also had the passage of the Legacy amendment, which we wanted to be poised to take advantage of. And we have some big projects that we are currently working on, such as the proposed new state park at Lake Vermilion and a challenge from our commissioner to make state parks and trails into a gateway for getting new people involved in the outdoors. So now is a very good time to integrate the two divisions to create our best future.

Q How has state parks attendance fared over the past few years?

Our attendance has stayed fairly flat; but if you look at it per capita, our attendance is slowly going down. People in the 18-to 30-year-old demographic are not visiting parks as much as in previous years. That is a disturbing trend for everybody at the DNR. We need to make people more aware of parks that are nice, short day trips. Price is not a barrier, our research tells us. Day-use price is 5 bucks per vehicle. We've got a bill in front of the Legislature that allows you to come into a state park for free if you're going to be taking a kid fishing. The idea is to get new people into fishing using the state park as a place to do it.

Q What are some programs or services you'd like parks and trails users to know about?

We're creatures of habit. If you ride the Root River Trail or you ride the Munger, you may not know about the hundreds of miles of other state trails. Visit new parks and trails -- we have a variety of options for people. We're looking at more technology: the Wi-Fi, the geocaching. We're looking at things to make it interesting, to make it sparkly. In addition, we are trying to do a better job in the fall, winter, and spring to provide some basic programming activities for folks who come to visit us then. Most people do not think on a winter day of going out and visiting a state park or using a state trail, and that's too bad because there aren't going to be many people.

Q What would you say to parents who don't take children to state parks or trails because they think "there's nothing to do?"

All kids need more activity. And unstructured play is one of the lost arts of the young generation. Once people visit a state park, they say they have a hard time dragging their kids out of the park. The same could be said for hopping onto a state trail on a bicycle. A lot of new users maybe didn't grow up with state parks or designated trails, campgrounds, and public water accesses. They may have come from another part of the country or another part of the world where they don't have those experiences to fall back upon, so we're trying to create that knowledge.

Q What is your most memorable time in Minnesota state parks?

Coming back from Duluth in January of 2007. It was 10:30 at night, and there was a full moon. My daughter and I needed to get out and stretch our legs, and we stopped at Banning State Park. It was 28 below zero, and we hiked along the Kettle River and tried to howl at some wolves. It was cold enough that you could hear the ice cracking in the river. It was just kind of magical.

Q How can users give back to Minnesota's parks, trails, and other recreation areas?

One way is to join a local friends-of-a-state-park group, a local trail association, or the Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota. Consider being a volunteer at your favorite state park or volunteering to clean up a trail. We have lots of volunteer opportunities; we had 150,000 hours of volunteer time last year. If you have a skill to contribute, you have an opportunity for volunteering.

Find information about volunteering with the DNR.

Looking for volunteer opportunities?