Focusing on making the state's public lands and outdoor activities more welcoming to non-traditional audiences, including people of color, the state Department of Natural Resources held its first-ever virtual roundtable, or stakeholders meeting, on Friday.

The annual meeting is typically convened at a Twin Cities hotel. But it was offered online to select invitees due to the pandemic.

Sarah Strommen, DNR commissioner, kicked off the daylong gathering saying that extraordinarily high uses of Minnesota parks, trails and other recreational resources in 2020 affords her agency expanded opportunities to connect new people to the outdoors.

Strommen added the DNR will reveal in coming months a new plan to fund management of state lands, waters and wildlife.

Expanding the user base of natural resources and finding new ways to pay for land and water management are urgent challenges for resource agencies nationwide. Hunter and angler license fees traditionally have underwritten state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, but fewer of these sportsmen and women are going afield as baby boomers age.

People of color don't utilize and enjoy the outdoors in numbers proportionate to their populations in part because, "we have failed to tell their story," said Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Preston Cole, a roundtable presenter.

"The goal for us is to invite those voices to the table and keep them at the table," said Cole, who is Black. "The time to start is now. We need to normalize seeing Black and brown faces in the outdoors."

Cole joined Cathy Chavers, chairwoman of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa; J. Drew Lanham, professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University; Alora Jones, digital strategist and conservation writer for the Nature Conservancy; and Verónica Jaralambides, a DNR marketing consultant, for a panel discussion Friday morning on "public health, social equity and natural resource management."

The Bois Forte Band, located in northeast Minnesota, has only 3,500 enrolled members, Chavers said.

"A lot of people don't know who we are and how we got here," Chavers said. "So we continue to educate people so they understand where we are coming from."

At 7,300 acres and a bountiful producer on the Bois Forte Reservation of wild rice, Nett Lake is one of the band's most valued natural resources.

"Nett Lake rice is the best rice in the world and we try to protect it," she said.

Beset by high rates of diabetes and cancer, the Bois Forte Band knows "we can't do it alone." At the same time, she recounted attempts generations ago when the federal government attempted to deprogram Native Americans of their culture.

Re-establishing the band's culture and traditional ways, while also collaborating with the state and federal governments, is a way forward, Chavers said.

Lanham, the Clemson professor, said: "We hear the words diversity and inclusion and get lost in those words. [But] we are tasked with the responsibility to unite, to connect and to conserve.''

All people, Lanham said, share "the same air, same water, same soil, same earth, same space."

"We have to go forward in a new way," he said.

Breakout sessions Friday afternoon featured research and management updates from DNR fisheries, wildlife and ecological and water resource staffs.

Building on the day's inclusion theme, DNR Central Region wildlife manager Jami Markle unveiled a "Gateway" wildlife management area (WMA) concept intended to draw school kids, wildlife watchers, birders and others to these areas, which more typically are visited by hunters.

Dave Trauba, DNR Southern Region wildlife manager, also detailed efforts to make WMAs more accessible to people with disabilities.

Gov. Tim Walz helped close the roundtable via video, reporting that Minnesotans continue to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and hoping that life soon will return to normal.

"We're one day closer to the fishing opener," he said.

danderson@startribune.com