The trend appears unmistakable: A smaller percentage of people in Minnesota, the United States and elsewhere are participating in outdoor recreation such as hunting, fishing, camping and visiting parks.

The reason: People -- especially kids -- may be spending more leisure time with computers, televisions and other electronics.

"We are seeing a fundamental shift away from people's interest in nature,'' researchers Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zardica wrote in a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was funded by the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group.

Their study looked at camping, backpacking, fishing, hiking, hunting and visits to national and state parks and forests. Besides the United States, it also included data from Japan and Spain.

They found that beginning in the 1980s, there was a striking decline in per-capita nature recreation, with a total drop of 18 to 25 percent from 1981 to 1991.

That finding supports other recent figures by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources showing declines in the percentage of the population that hunts, fishes, camps and partakes in other outdoor activities.

In Minnesota, while actual numbers of hunters, anglers, campers and park visitors have remained mostly steady, their numbers as a percentage of the population have fallen. From 1996 to 2006, per capita angling was down 16 percent, hunting was down 9 percent and park visitation was down 10 percent.

"We're coming to the same conclusion that they did - that there's been quite a shift away from nature-based recreation, especially since the 1990s,'' said Tim Kelly, DNR research analyst. "And we don't see any evidence that it's turning around.''

Hunting, fishing and park attendance peaked sometime during the 1990s and has been declining on a per-capita basis, Kelly said.

"We think there has been a change in the way Americans and Minnesotans value the outdoors for leisure,'' he said.

The trend has many ramifications.

"If people don't go out into nature as much, they won't care about nature as much, and if they don't care about nature, they won't care about conservation,'' lead study author Pergams said in an interview. He is assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Also, hunters and anglers pay for much of the land and water conservation efforts through their license fees and taxes on equipment. If their numbers decline, so, too, will conservation funding.

Aging outdoor enthusiasts

On the surface, things look OK in Minnesota. Actual hunter (600,000) and angler (1.6 million) numbers are steady, as are the number of visitors to Minnesota's state parks. Popular parks are still jammed on holiday weekends. Public hunting lands and some popular fishing lakes can be downright crowded.

But many of those who enjoy outdoors recreation are aging faster than the overall population -- meaning young people aren't taking up these activities. And if that trend continues, the actual numbers of outdoor participants will fall.

Some examples:

• A new survey of Minnesota state park users shows that they are aging faster than the general population. Over the past six years, the median age increased four years -- from 36 to 40 -- while the state's overall population aged less than one year. "The decline was in adults 19 to 44 and kids 13 and under,'' Kelly said.

The DNR conducted focus groups to find out why people with kids weren't visiting state parks. Among the reasons: "It's the really busy schedules people have,'' said Pat Arndt, DNR planning and public affairs manager. "Their lives are really, really planned out."

• U.S. Fish and Wildlife figures show hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers also are aging. "They are all graying more rapidly than the background population,'' Kelly said.

• The average age of members of Pheasants Forever, a Minnesota-based national conservation group with more than 110,000 members, has risen from 40 in 1990 to almost 50 today.

'Videophilia' a cause?

Researchers Pergams and Zaradic call the trend of young people choosing more sedentary activities involving electronic media "videophilia.''

The decline in outdoor recreation roughly corresponds to the booming popularity of video games, personal computers, the Internet, multichannel television and home entertainment systems, said Kelly.

"They are all direct competitors for leisure time, and they all started about the time these trends did. We can't prove they are the cause. But we think they are likely suspects,'' he said.

Tom Landwehr, associate state director of conservation for the Nature Conservancy, agrees.

"My 10-year-old son, Hunter, who loves being outside, goes from the computer games, to the Wii he got for Christmas, to his DS hand-held (game console) without missing a beat. He could spend the whole day on those things, if we let him.''

Urbanization and a disconnect with the land are other likely causes, he said.

"I think it's very disturbing,'' Landwehr said. "We need to turn off the electronics and let the kids go outside. And mom and dad should be going with them.''

If the trends continue, "kids will have little exposure to the outdoors, and very little reason to want to conserve it,'' Landwehr said.

The DNR and groups such as Pheasants Forever have responded by promoting youth hunting and fishing events and trying to remove barriers to outdoor activities. The DNR created a new hunter apprentice program last year that allowed people without firearms safety certificates to hunt for one year, accompanied by an adult hunter. About 2,700 people, nearly all ages 11 to 27, participated last fall.

"We're working hard every day on new strategies and ideas of getting folks outdoors,'' said Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment coordinator. "But ultimately, it falls on adults with kids to get them actively involved in the outdoors. We as a society have to make it a priority.''