A sea change is occurring in our relationship with the outdoors.

The trend is nationwide. And Minnesotans, despite their brag-worthy natural resources, are not immune. On a per-capita basis, we’re doing less outdoors. Since the peak year for nature-based recreation in 1996, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of the population who hunt, fish and visit state and national parks.

There are still 90 million people nationwide and 2.1 million in Minnesota who say they actively participate in nature-based recreation. But those numbers would be much larger if the ’96 rates of participation still applied against the larger U.S. and Minnesota population numbers.

They don’t.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regularly undertakes a comprehensive survey of nature-related activity, says the trend started heading south in the late 1990s, primarily driven by a drop in participation by adults ages 20 to 40 and their children.

That is particularly troubling because this age group represents the future of natural resources use.

The reasons behind the recent eschewing of nature are many. A dramatic growth in diversity within our population is a factor. The increasing urbanization of America is another. But the root causes for the downturn are the familiar barriers: time and money.

It’s no coincidence that people started finding less time for the outdoors in the 1990s, when the Internet burst onto computer screens. In fact, the 20- to 40-year-olds listed Internet usage, video games and movies as the top three reasons why they don’t find time for nature-based recreation.

The fourth-leading roadblock is the price of gasoline — perhaps less so with recent price drops.

Dealing with reality

People whose livelihoods depend on getting a share of the $54 billion a year that Americans spend on outdoor recreation ignore the digital competition at their peril.

Though perhaps counterintuitive, the best way to compete with cellphones and other gadgets may be, as the adage suggests, to join ’em rather than try to beat ’em.

For example, are Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness aficionados dealing with reality when opposing cell towers serving that area? Especially since the average age of BWCA visitors, 36 in the 1990s, is now 45?

Being out of cellphone range, especially among the young, is cause for pause among potential converts to the joys of paddling border waters.

Resort owners, accustomed to acting like entrepreneurs to survive, may find themselves screening movies like “Frozen” in their lodges. Or better yet, offering films on flash drives for their guests’ laptops. Also available for loan could be the digital map of their lake with fish-bite hot spots pinpointed, a kind of resort-specific app. A Wi-Fi hotspot is just as important to today’s tech-savvy guests as a fishing hotspot. To many northern-lakes visitors, wireless routers and bandwidth have become as necessary as live bait and clean sheets.

Does all this sound slightly crazy? Shouldn’t people be seeking the silence, the solitude, the beauty of nature to relax, to think introspectively, to recharge?

Yes, but we may have gone beyond the tipping point to a place where people can’t fathom a day without at least an occasional dose of digital.

Recruiting converts

One low-cost, no-hassle way to step into the outdoor world is bike riding. No gas nor license required.

And no, the Tour de France uniform and the $2,000 Italian mountain bike aren’t necessary to get started. The old Schwinn hanging in the garage will work just fine. Waiting in the spring are hundreds of miles of state-provided, no-fee biking trails offering a close-up look at the wonders of a reawakening natural world.

Fishing, by far the most popular outdoor recreation in Minnesota, is another easy entry into outdoor recreation. A fishing rod, a bucket of bait and a short bike ride or drive to a lakeshore or Department of Natural Resources-provided fishing pier, and you’re fishing. Complete novices are often amazed at how helpful nearby anglers can be in getting them started.

Jay Johnson, who works in DNR hunter recruitment, has found attentive ears among patrons of food co-ops, many of whom prefer to eat locally produced, organic food with an eye on sustainability. Bingo! Minnesota game is locally grown, nutritious and sustainable. Plus, it comes to the dinner table free of growth hormones and antibiotics.

Still, people getting started in hunting and other outdoor activities are going to need help. A large-scale turnaround of drooping nature-based recreation numbers is going to require an almost evangelistic effort on the part of veteran outdoors users.

Want to help?

Ask a newcomer to nature and his or her child to tag along on your next fishing, hunting or camping trip.