Minnesotans love their state parks.
Nearly all of the 5,000 state park campsites and cabins were filled this holiday weekend, and hiking trails and picnic tables were crowded. Some 1.5 million Minnesotans are expected to visit a state park this year.
But will those park visitors continue to show up in years to come?
Officials aren’t certain, because while the number of people camping, hiking, fishing, hunting and boating has been steady in Minnesota, their numbers as a percentage of the population have been falling, mirroring a national trend.
And park visitors — the vast majority white — are getting older. Those 55 and older doubled from 15 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2012. And park users are aging faster than the general population.
“We’ve been serving baby boomers and older adults and losing Gen Xers and millennials,’’ said Pat Arndt, Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division outreach manager.
Young people are needed to replace older visitors, who eventually will be shuffling off to nursing homes instead of hiking trails.
But there’s another problem: Though the state population of minorities is increasing, that trend isn’t reflected at Gooseberry Falls, Itasca or other state parks. While 17 percent of the state population is nonwhite, only 3 percent of park visitors are. The nonwhite or Hispanic population grew by 54 percent from 2000 to 2010, to almost 900,000. Meanwhile, the white population grew just 2 percent.
Many minorities, including new immigrants, simply don’t have traditions involving outdoor activities, including visiting state parks.
The bottom line: Officials are trying to figure out how to get younger visitors to the parks to replace the aging ones, while also tapping the growing minority population.
“We have a challenge ahead of us, definitely,’’ Arndt said. “These are the crown jewels of Minnesota. There are health benefits and there are economic benefits to people visiting the parks. Our parks are a crucial part of our tourism economy.’’
Wi-Fi in state parks
One of the barriers to getting people to try an outdoor activity is lack of information, Arndt said. “They don’t know what’s there and don’t feel they have skills or equipment to camp or bike or fish.’’
When the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008, the DNR began tapping money dedicated to parks and trails to try to respond.
“We instituted the ‘I can’ programs as one of the solutions,’’ Arndt said. Those programs, which began in 2010, introduce families to camping, climbing, paddling, fishing and archery.
“We provide the equipment and trained instructors,’’ she said.
About 3,500 people yearly participate in “I can’’ programs, and so far 79 percent of programs had teens or children involved. About 9 percent of participants were minorities — still below the percentage in the general population.
“Those aren’t big numbers, but it’s a start,’’ Arndt said.