Teaching conservation and outdoor participation

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 13, 2014 - 12:23 PM

A new after-school program brings kids outdoors in an effort to protect our shared woods, waters and fields.

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Pickerel Lake provided fun and fish to members of the Outdoor Club of Battle Creek Elementary School in St. Paul. The club is a joint project of the DNR, the National Park Service and the school.

For generations, Minnesotans whose lineage dates to pioneer days — families with names like Peterson, Johnson and Miller — have taught their kids and grandkids the joys of fishing atop the state’s fabled 10,000 lakes and more than 92,000 miles of rivers.

As a result, Minnesota has long been a leader in the percentage of its residents who “wet a line’’ or otherwise spend time outdoors, and near the top among states in sales of fishing and hunting licenses and money raised for conservation.

But Minnesota is changing, and its position as a national icon of land and water stewardship is at risk, experts say, along with the health of its natural resources, unless its newer residents — families with names like Vang, Mohamed and Marquez — are similarly imbued with a passion for outdoor pastimes that tie them to the state’s lands and waters.

“If you don’t have a connection to our resources, you’re not going to care about them,’’ said Michelle Kelly, a biologist and teacher with MinnAqua, a Department of Natural Resources outreach program that exposes kids to the state’s natural resources and how to enjoy them.

Now, after successful formation of an after-school Outdoor Club for fourth- and fifth-graders from three St. Paul elementary schools in the past year, the DNR, the National Park Service and others hope to replicate the concept at other Twin Cities schools this fall.

The intent is to expose the metro’s increasingly diverse student populations to fishing and other, similar outdoor pastimes, enriching their lives while cultivating future generations of conservationists.

The outdoor club concept was launched at Battle Creek Elementary School in St. Paul, where about 13 percent of students are white, 3 percent are Indian, 11 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African-American or African, and 38 percent Asian-American.

Last winter, the club’s members hiked, fished through the ice and skied. This spring they learned to tie fishing knots and bait hooks before casting bobber rigs into Pickerel Lake in St. Paul, where they caught stringers of sunfish.

“From what I’ve seen, fourth and fifth grades represent the sweet spot for introducing students to the outdoors,’’ said Mary Blitzer, a National Park Service ranger. “It comes natural to them at that age, whether it’s fishing, skiing or getting sweaty on a hike.’’

Changing demographics

A National Park Service Foundation grant helped fund the initial outdoor club, with support from the St. Paul School District’s After School Program, whose more typical offerings include math, English and other classwork.

“Kids beg to get into the Outdoor Club,’’ said Julie Richards, an After School Program coordinator with St. Paul public schools. “But there’s a limit to the number who can participate, and they have to earn the opportunity.’’

Programs that boost angler and other outdoor participation among all Minnesotans, but perhaps especially among communities of color, can’t happen soon enough, said Tim Kelly, a DNR researcher.

“Almost all of Minnesota’s growth now is in its minority populations,’’ Kelly said.

Between 2000 and 2010, Kelly said, the percentage of the state’s white population under the age of 17 dropped by 11 percent, while nonwhite numbers in that age category grew by nearly 50 percent.

Compounding the challenge, about 31 percent of white Minnesotans fish. But only 11 percent of state minorities do, according to a DNR survey.

And while overall Minnesota angler numbers have remained stable in recent years, fishing participation as a percentage of the population is declining. Thirty-one percent of residents fished in 2000. That share fell to 28 percent in 2012.

Reasons often cited for the falloff include urbanization, lack of time and an increase in single-parent families. Team sports also increasingly vie for kids’ attention, as do computers, cellphones and the Internet.

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