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At one of the most breathtaking vistas along the North Shore, Beth Peterson and Bob Myer enjoy the view from Shovel Point in Tettegouche State Park.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Outreach helps Minnesota state park visits grow

  • Article by: STEVE KARNOWSKI
  • Associated Press
  • July 18, 2014 - 8:15 PM

MINNEAPOLIS — Despite a record wettest June that kept Minnesotans hunkered down at home, state figures show that more people than ever are getting outdoors to take advantage of Minnesota's state parks.

Officials with the Department of Natural Resources credit the revenue stream from the Legacy Amendment sales tax increase. They say it's helping them boost their outreach efforts, particularly to the families with school-age kids that they're counting on to be the next generation of nature lovers.

The 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment raised the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 percent to fund environmental, outdoors and cultural projects. It's generated more than $1 billion since 2009. About a fifth of the money goes for various DNR programs, or about $215 million so far.

Using Legacy money has been a key strategy for introducing and reconnecting people to the outdoors, said Patricia Arndt, outreach manager for the DNR's Parks and Trails Division.

"There are a lot of people that don't even know the raw beauty that exists in our Minnesota state parks, from the grandeur of the North Shore to the cliffs of Blue Mounds State Park," Arndt said Friday.

DNR figures show that the outreach seems to be paying off. Vehicle permit sales have been rising since 2008. Sales of $5 one-day vehicle permits increased 15 percent from 2008-2013, while sales of $25 annual permits rose 21 percent.

Other measures also show increasing use of the 76 state parks and recreation areas. Overnight stays increased 10 percent over the period. Participation in interpretive programs rose 37 percent, and enrollment in a Legacy-funded introductory camping program more than doubled from when the program began in 2010 through 2013.

"I Can Camp!" and similar programs for introducing families to canoeing, fishing, mountain biking, climbing and archery have been a big hit, Arndt said.

"We provide the equipment, we provide trained leaders in a very safe setting," she said.

Focus group research found that many people don't know how to set up tents, build campfires or cook over fires, Arndt said. The DNR plans to conduct surveys later this year to find out how many participants actually make camping and other activities parts of their lifestyles, she said, but anecdotal feedback suggests it's working, she said.

Legacy money also allowed the DNR to create online virtual tours of every state park. Arndt said that lets visitors check out parks before they visit and discover new ones. The funding has also helped the parks add naturalists, so on any given summer weekend the parks offer 60 to 80 nature programs statewide. Free bird-watching, GPS and other activity kits available for checkout at many parks are also Legacy funded.

The upward trend in park use has continued this year despite a sizable hiccup in a relentlessly rainy June. Daily vehicle permit sales were up 11 percent through June compared with 2013, while annual permit sales were up 5 percent. May campsite occupancy was up 20 percent from May 2013, though it was down 7 percent in June.

But things were back on track by the Fourth of July holiday weekend, state parks spokeswoman Amy Barrett said. Visitors occupied 3,663 campsites, or 79 percent of the available spaces, up about 200 campsites from the same weekend last year, she said.

The DNR presumes this year's guest numbers would be even better if flooding hadn't forced the closure of the most-visited state park, Fort Snelling State Park in the Twin Cities, as well as Blue Mounds in the southwest corner of the state, and kept them closed through the holiday, she said.

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