When, in the 11th hour of its recent session, the Legislature approved purchase of land on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota for a new state park, it set in motion a complex planning process for the Department of Natural Resources and many others.

Parks and trails groups, local and county governments, and niche outdoor sports organizations such as hiking and snowmobile clubs will weigh in on design of the new park.

The DNR has said it wants the Vermilion facility to be a prototype of a modern, 21st-century park, complete with electrical hookups for recreational vehicle campers, a "wild lands" site for tent campers, and perhaps wireless Internet for everyone.

But as DNR state parks director Courtland Nelson suggested in an interview Thursday, much of the DNR's planning for the new Vermilion park will be based on a few old assumptions.

One is that purchases of recreational vehicles, and the trucks and SUVs big enough to tow or carry them, will continue in America.

Park usage in the past two decades, after all, has been changed by Americans' widespread ownership of RVs. In many regions of the nation, the most popular (and profitable) "campgrounds" are those with electrical hookups, modern showers and other comforts.

Recreation specialists and park planners have long believed this trend would continue indefinitely. They think retirees and others with disposable income and available time will continue to demand vacation camping facilities more akin to hotels, in some respects, than wilderness hovels.

Enter now a threefold challenge to that assumption: rising fuel costs, the housing crisis and an overall underperforming economy.

Each has caused RV owners and even boaters to consider their investments and recreational pursuits in new lights. Most probably will use their toys this summer as they have in the past, but might do so less frequently and perhaps closer to home than they had planned.

Chances are good the nation's economic doldrums will be temporary, and Americans again will be healthy enough financially to pursue their outdoor fun when and how they choose.

But the DNR must also consider -- particularly as it plans its newest park -- the possibility that rising fuel costs and other pressures on incomes might cause a seismic shift in Americans' recreational pursuits.

Nelson is fairly certain of at least two camping preferences among Minnesotans -- and fairly certain as well those preferences won't abate soon.

One is the popularity of, and demand for, electrical hookups. Another is that tent camping remains very important to at least half of Minnesota state park users.

"We need to plan for both," Nelson said.

But what if -- over time -- America's culture and economy are transformed and a new form of recreational pursuit emerges, such as that of the (for lack of a better term) minimalist camper?

This person or family might be willing to camp at a state park, but might not own any gear and might not even be able to afford to drive to the park. Their "park experience" might include boarding a state-contracted bus on a Friday evening in Minneapolis bound for a state park, where a tent and other gear would be set up for them.

The next weekend, someone else would use the same tent.

Unlikely? Maybe. But the DNR, in cooperation with REI, the outdoor gear company, will experiment with similar camping opportunities this summer at three state parks.

Americans' continued fascination with camping is dependent on a growing economy, a large middle class with disposable income, and ready access to desirable lakes, rivers and parks.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature addressed the access issue when they approved the Vermilion park.

How the rest plays out in Minnesota and the nation is anyone's guess. Not least, just now, that of Nelson and other DNR park planners.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com