Citizens’ group aims to connect Minnesotans to outdoors

By Stephanie Hemphill

Minnesotans voted to tax themselves to improve parks and trails, part of the Legacy Amendment of 2008. But Minnesota is changing demographically, with newcomers from places less connected to the outdoors, and kids who are more comfortable with video games than camping.

Given that somewhat contradictory picture, a citizen's group has spent 18 months preparing a plan for the future of Minnesota's parks and trails.

The plan identifies four major strategies -- connecting people with the outdoors, acquiring land and creating new opportunities for park use, investing in existing facilities and coordinating all levels of government and nonprofit groups.

Courtland Nelson, director of parks and trails for the state Department of Natural Resources, expects better coordination among the four categories of Legacy Amendment funding: clean water, habitat, parks and trails, and arts and culture.

"It makes all the sense in the world, if we're doing some component of land protection within a state park, that should have an opportunity to be evaluated by the Lessard-Sams Council," said Nelson, who is guiding the planning process. "Similarly, we have a number of public programming issues that could be enhanced by arts and culture investment."

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The DNR is ramping up its public relations efforts.The agency hired Chris Niskanen, an outdoor writer for the Star-Tribune, to head its communication office, and brought on Bob Lessard, a long-time crusader for the Legacy Amendment, to work with conservation groups "to ensure that the agency is listening and responding to their ideas and concerns."

In addition, the DNR named Erica Rivers Assistant Commissioner for Customer Relations and Outreach. Rivers was most recently project manager for the Lake Vermilion State Park development.

The agency is updating web pages to make them user-friendly, and posting an interactive display at key locations like the airport and the Mall of America. All in an effort to keep Minnesotans active in the outdoors.

Reporter Stephanie Hemphill covers the environment for MPR News.