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.
The agency also has boosted advertising and improved its website, offering virtual tours of parks so people can see before they go. “We’re now on Facebook and Twitter,’’ Arndt said.
Ethnicity aside, all families are busy with organized sports and other activities, Arndt said. “We’re finding the barriers to outdoor recreation are pretty similar across ethnic lines,’’ she said. “We know when people get out and have that experience camping or fishing, they love it and want to do more of it. We’re trying to make it easier for them.’’
Which means changes.
“We have a wonderful park system, but we need to look at what the next generation is telling us they want, and adapt,’’ Arndt said.
A 2012 survey of park users showed 50 percent of campers would like Internet access at parks. Six parks or recreation areas now have Wi-Fi: Red River, Lake Bronson, Itasca, Lake Bemidji, St. Croix and William O’Brien. And more likely will be added. And 60 percent of park visitors would like cellphone coverage at campgrounds and near visitor centers.
More hiking, no hunting
That same survey sheds light on what park users do, and what they want or don’t want in the future.
Their top pick: adding more hiking opportunities. They’d also like more self-guided learning opportunities, more programs for children, more accommodations for disabled people.
Visitors don’t favor expanding development in parks, and they’d like more of those popular rustic camper cabins that have sprouted in recent years. About 85 have been built, including five that just opened at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park.
Some things park users definitely don’t want: more hunting in state parks, and ATVs. Forty percent oppose more hunting, while just 9 percent support the idea. And 60 percent oppose more ATVs in state parks; 12 percent support the idea.
“The next generation wants more secluded campsites,’’ Arndt said. So the latest camper cabins were built away from parking lots.
What do people do at state parks?
The most popular activity (69 percent) is hiking and walking; 33 percent observe or photograph nature; 22 percent picnic; 21 percent bird watch; 19 percent swim; 14 percent fish, bike or camp.
And of those campers this weekend, about 44 percent likely slept in a tent, 34 percent in an RV and 13 percent in a pop-up trailer.
The trend: More people are camping in fancier RVs, fewer in pop-up trailers or tents.
One thing is clear: When people go to a state park, they have a good time.
“Satisfaction is at an all-time high,’’ Arndt said.
And she’s hoping more Minnesotans discover the good times.