MN lawmaker: Get the kids outside — just not today

A Minnesota lawmaker wants to fund programs that would encourage more children who live in cities around the state to enjoy the outdoors.

"I recognize we're having a hearing on the one day of the year my children will not be playing outside," bill author Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL- Roseville, said with a laugh Tuesday, a day before a House committee hearing on the bill. Most schools around the state were closed Wednesday, thanks to temperatures hovering around 30 below.

The legislation targets a serious challenge that's growing in scope as the state's population ages. Fewer people are participating in traditional outdoor activities like hunting and angling. Environmental advocates worry that might mean fewer people who care about protecting natural resources in the future.

The No Child Left Inside bill would set up a program to fund outdoor environmental, ecological and other natural resources-based education and recreation programs for young people.

"People who spend more time in our public spaces, our public parks and trails, are the ones who are more likely to want to protect it in the future and see the value and the benefit of that, so it's kind of building our future conservationists," said Becker-Finn, who grew up in northern Minnesota and is a hunter and angler.

Minnesota has long been an outdoors state. Voters added the right to hunt and fish to the state constitution in 1998. Each year, Minnesota sells licenses to about 1.1 million resident anglers and 550,000 resident hunters, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

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But many older hunters and anglers are no longer going afield as they age — and fewer young residents are buying hunting and fishing licenses.

The number of hunters and anglers has remained steady or fallen even as the state population grew.

Since 2000, the state has seen a 12 percent decline in the rate of hunting and fishing license sales based on population, according to a DNR report.

Bob Meier, who directs the DNR's policy and government relations department, said he thinks the idea of grants for local organizations would help DNR programs reach more people.

"It starts at the community or organization or municipal level where people can build trust with their members and say, ‘Hey, let's go try winter camping,’ or something," said Meier.

The agency has programs at state parks or recreational areas, but Meier said for some communities, transportation is the biggest barrier to participating.

“We've tried 'build it and they will come.’ This is 'we have it, let's bring them there'," said Meier.

The DNR already has in place a number of hunting and fishing recruitment efforts. While Becker-Finn said she thinks those programs are great, she worries people won't give hunting or fishing a second thought if they have never felt a connection to the outdoors.

Her idea is to target programs to urban areas around the state and give children a change to experience hiking, camping, environmental science or many other possible outdoor experiences.

"If your parents don't have safe transportation for you and access to get you into some of these spaces, you aren't necessarily going to have the connection with the public parks and spaces that already exist," said Becker-Finn.

The legislation is based on a successful program in Washington state that focuses on providing outdoor programs from rock climbing to outdoor cooking for under-served youth.

Washington state spends about $1.5 million on the program every two years according to Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office.

Becker-Finn hasn't attached a dollar amount to her legislation.