March–April 2021


Back to the Land

In 2020, parks, trails, and waters were a balm for Minnesotans weathering the pandemic.

Keith Goetzman

MANY Minnesotans spent 2020 hunkered down from COVID-19 and its widespread effects—but they also got out into nature as the pandemic fueled a boom in many types of outdoor recreation. 

Visitorship to state parks in 2020 was up 25 percent over the previous three years, while state trail use was up 50 percent over 2019. Fishing license sales rose 11 percent. State forests saw a 33 percent uptick in campground use and a surge in inquiries about dispersed camping.

“Minnesotans rediscovered the great outdoors in a big way in 2020 because it was our way to feel connected,” says Erika Rivers, Parks and Trails director. “We couldn’t be connected with the people we normally would, but we were connected to the natural world.”

The busiest state parks were those in or near the Twin Cities metro area, on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, says Rivers.

The rise in fishing license sales was “really good news,” says Brad Parsons, DNR Fisheries chief. “We think it was a combination of people new to fishing and what we call reactivation—people who used to fish and hadn’t for a while. And we had lots of reports of higher-than-normal fishing pressure.”

Along with these “silver linings,” as Rivers calls them, the pandemic brought challenges to the DNR. Many employees had to devise new practices and procedures wherever they were working. Busy parks were strained by staffing and operations logistics. Much interpretive, volunteer, and educational programming was called off.

Many DNR employees who work in the field—from species surveyors to firefighters, from archaeologists to private forest consultants—were hampered by COVID guidelines that affected travel, lodging, dining, and work done in close quarters. The Minnesota Biological Survey is an especially fieldwork-intensive DNR program, with two-thirds of its staff of scientists heading outdoors every season.

“We had to cancel an entire field season for a major project,” says MBS head Bruce Carlson, because it required a four-person crew to work closely for an extended period. MBS also had to cancel other work, including early-season monitoring of federally listed plant species, but modified other projects in order to collect data. “If we can get one person out there, great,” says Carlson. “It’s better than nothing.”

That sort of can-do attitude exemplified much of the DNR workforce during this challenging time, says Rivers. “I have to give a shout-out to all of DNR’s employees,” she says. “We as an agency stepped up. We did what needed to be done.”

Looking back on a year of tough times but increased outdoor interest, she adds, “I’m hopeful that we can use this as an opportunity to help people reconnect even more. I think we’re all looking forward to brighter days.”