From diminished habitat and threatened wildlife, vexing challenges face Minnesota’s outdoors. Also much-publicized are questions of just who will use and protect the state’s rich heritage in the years to come.
Hunters and anglers are the primary source of funding for wildlife conservation through license fees. All told, hunters spent $725 million in Minnesota on their sport in 2015. Their numbers, however, are declining. The majority of the hunting-fishing population in Minnesota is older, white and male in a state whose population is trending younger and more diverse.
“Most of us in conservation do not look like America,” said Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, last year. “We do not, therefore, adequately represent America.”
He feels the same way today: A new approach is needed to connect future generations with nature.
“Children have many more choices today on how they are going to spend their free time,” said Ashe, who is now the chief executive of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. “What we have to do, we have to capture that free time in as many possible ways as we can.”
Before Ashe retired from the wildlife agency he started an urban initiative to try to improve on recruitment. His goal: Get people out of the city and visiting national parks, wildlife refuges and forests.
“If [young people] are spending more time in a connected environment,” Ashe said, “we’ve got to grab them where they are and provide them with easy opportunities to use that at as a gateway and maybe get them to say, ‘Maybe I was meant to learn how to fish, to backpack or hike, or camp.’ ”
Some of those who advocate like Ashe are trying to point to an even deeper importance, one that’s personal.
“A sport like fishing really builds your self-esteem and independence,” said Larry McCullough, 48, of Maple Grove, a black Army veteran of the Gulf War and a volunteer with Fishing for Life.
McCullough also helps coach his children’s soccer teams. He noted the differences between organized team sports and individual outdoors activities: “It is like art — you draw a picture, you are responsible for what you create,” he said. “I can see it in my daughter’s face when she catches a fish. I can see that excitement: ‘I did this myself.’ ”
But exposing people of color to the outdoors isn’t enough, Ashe says.
“What we need to do, at a professional level, is to make a commitment to diversify our ranks,” he said. “There is this myth that qualified candidates don’t exist. We are looking in the same places.
“When we go actively looking, there are many [people of color], and they are highly qualified,” Ashe said. “If we can diversify our professional ranks, we will have spokespeople and leaders who can inspire people within their communities.”
In the spirit of Black History Month, here is a glance at four Minnesotans whose lives have been shaped by their young lives in the outdoors. Now, as adults, they’re working to pay it forward with black youth and other people of color. Their common theme: Create opportunities to get active in the outdoors as a foundation for lifelong enjoyment and personal success.
Taylor, 58, of Minneapolis, owes his passion for the outdoors to his parents, who enrolled him in summer camp as a child to keep him off the streets of Milwaukee. From there, Taylor worked in various outdoors positions throughout high school and college, mentoring younger people in the natural world.
In his current role as adventures director with the Loppet Foundation, Taylor employs a strategy similar to his parents’ when speaking with families of color. “I ask them to tell me what they want for their children,” Taylor said. “They all say the same thing: independence, self-reliance, self-confidence. Then I say, ‘When I tell you the answer, promise me you’ll still do it: skiing.’ ” Every year, based in Theodore Wirth Park, Taylor works with hundreds of inner-city youth. “We believe we can do all these adventures in the neighborhood,” Taylor said. “These adventures are a jumping off point, and they start in their backyard.”
Akinseye, 26, of Farmington, spent her childhood collecting Star Tribune Outdoors pages and watching “Minnesota Bound.” From a family unfamiliar with the outdoors, Akinseye, taught herself to fish at age 16, then at 18, to hunt. “I figured if all these guys can do it, so can I,” she said.
Today, Akinseye spends her free time volunteering with groups such as Women Hunting & Fishing in All Seasons and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, among others. Certified in gun safety, she also volunteers as an instructor at Cabin Fever Sporting Goods in Victoria. She also leads WHO’s Outdoors, which is focused on one-on-one mentorships and creating opportunities for outdoors experiences for people in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. WHO stands for “Willing to Help Others.”
Jones, 26, of Minneapolis, grew up in Eden Prairie and graduated from Metropolitan State University. As a senior, she won an internship with Mississippi Park Connection, which spurred a passion for conservation. She now works as a marketing and communications associate with MPC and volunteers as the Minneapolis-based leader for Outdoor Afro, a national organization concerned with connecting African Americans with nature. Cultural diversity in the outdoors is a personal priority for Jones. “Disrupting the perception that black people lack a relationship with the natural world is one of the pillars of Outdoor Afro’s work,” Jones said.
Wilson, 52, of Eagan, is originally from Inglewood, Calif., where she was a Girl Scout and took camping trips. She moved to Minnesota to attend Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and credits a graduation trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for shaping her. Wilson, a Wilderness Inquiry youth employment coordinator, not only works to connect youth with their environment, she provides education and networking opportunities for young adults looking to pursue a profession in the outdoors. “Overall, I think what is critical is building trust with the young adults I work with,” she said, “letting them know they have so many opportunities in their natural world.”
Jack Hennessy is a freelance writer from St. Louis Park. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @WildGameJack.