What will it take to get you outdoors and into nature?

Can you be persuaded, either through a special event or an engaging social-media campaign, to visit a state or national park or hike a trail at a national wildlife refuge? Will you go if it’s free?

In what appears to be an emerging trend in outdoor recreation, government land management agencies, nonprofit groups and others are using a mix of enticements to get more people outdoors — particularly millennials, younger families and other nontraditional demographics. The goals are to increase outdoors participation, buoy attendance at public venues (parks, refuges and trails), improve public health, and hopefully enlist a new generation of outdoors stewards.

“I think it’s absolutely a trend,” said Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit group established by the Outdoors Industry Association to promote that shared passion. “In our research, young people and minorities are increasingly more indoors and inactive. Local and state agencies, among others, are looking to engage and attract new users … through savvy marketing strategies that have been shown to work with new audiences. We just have to continue to work to break down barriers.”

Although the “get outdoors” mantra isn’t new, the idea was popularized in 2005 with Richard Louv’s “Last Child Left in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

The bestselling book was a clarion call and confirmed that direct exposure to the outdoors is essential for healthy childhood development. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that, for both children and adults, interaction with nature helps reduce attention-deficit disorder, obesity and depression, and can boost mental acuity and strengthen families and communities.

The importance of getting more children back in touch with nature has ascended to the White House. President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative began Sept. 1 and provides U.S. fourth-graders free access to national parks, forests and refuges throughout the school year. The goal is to create that next generation of users, particularly in underserved urban communities.

A variation on that theme is fee-free days offered by the National Wildlife Refuge system, which encompasses more than 150 million acres in 563 refuges and 38 wetland management districts. Most refuges admit the public free year-around, but a few charge small entrance fees to cover maintenance and visitor services. In 2016, free public admission will take place on a handful of special days (it started Jan. 18 with Martin Luther King Jr. Day), including this Presidents’ Day weekend. The National Park Service, which is celebrating its 100th birthday in 2016, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service also offer fee-free days this year.

Tina Shaw, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, said the eight-state Midwest region has 55 refuges and 12 wetland management districts that offer year-round special events and programming to entice more people. That includes ice fishing for kids, family snowshoeing weekends, skiing by candlelight and other seasonal offerings. National wildlife refuges, she said, are also great places to hike, spy wildlife and “get away from it all and recharge.”

“We’re always looking to branch out and bring in new audiences,” said Shaw. “We want everyone to feel welcome and get outside in their own backyards safely and year-around and hopefully for the rest of their lives.”

Rescue the kids

Nearly half of all Americans (48.4 percent) participated in at least one outdoor recreational activity in 2014, according to Outdoor Foundation research. However, participation has dropped 0.8 percent since 2013 and reached its lowest levels since the foundation began compiling data in 2006.

“We had some extreme weather and unusually cold temperatures that likely contributed to the decline, but the overall point is that we need to reduce barriers to the outdoors, particularly with kids and younger families,” said Fanning.

“With kids, we have to rescue them from their virtual worlds and connect them to nature like previous generations. Who will be the next stewards of our lands and waters if we don’t?”

Fanning said common barriers are cost, access (to gear and equipment and even transportation) and time. “The challenge is providing local opportunities because outdoor recreation is often looked at as some faraway wilderness experience. But there are plenty of opportunities that are closer to home and affordable. We just have to market them better, and I think that’s starting to happen.”

A case in point: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is using special events, social media and other innovations to get more people outdoors. It appears to be working, too. Attendance at state parks has gone up sharply. December 2015 year-round permit sales were up 36 percent from December 2014.

Patricia Arndt, communications and outreach manager for the DNR’s parks and trails division, said the increase is a three-part equation: Good weather, good customer service and “strategic outreach.”

“We’ve ramped up social media and are doing more with our website, like virtual tours of state parks,” said Arndt. “We’re also getting more printed material and communications to libraries and other places frequented by younger families — our target market.

“Prior to passing the Legacy Act amendment, we were seeing a decrease in young families getting into the outdoors,” she added. “Those additional funds have certainly helped in our overall effort.”

The DNR, she said, also offers skill-building courses for camping, canoeing, archery and more. In addition, 2016 is the state parks and trails’ 125th anniversary, which is based on the birthday of the state’s oldest park, Itasca State Park. In marking the milestone, the DNR has a new challenge: Do 125 miles by bike, boot or boat.

“It’s just another way for us to get people outdoors, to see what this beautiful state has to offer,” Arndt said.


Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.