The commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources told a group of lake advocates on Tuesday that it's her personal mission to connect more people with the outdoors.
Sarah Strommen spoke at the "Water Connects Us All" conference in Walker, Minn., organized by the nonprofit Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. The two-day conference focused on challenges facing the state's natural resources, including climate change, aquatic invasive species and threats to water quality, as well as possible solutions.
Strommen highlighted Minnesota's changing demographics, noting that the state's population is getting older, more urban and diverse. But she said youth and families aren't using state parks and other recreation facilities as much because of a lack of time or experience, concerns about safety or language barriers.
Strommen said people's connection to nature is critical for the long-term protection of the state's natural resources, its economy and residents' well-being.
"The reality is that people who work to protect these resources, the main factor that motivates people is that personal connection or personal experience," she said.
Strommen also said there's a wealth of research showing the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature. Even just a few minutes a day spent in an urban park can lower stress and anxiety levels, she said.
Referring to the increased use of technology among kids and teens, Strommen said she was glad her son was fishing at their nearby family cabin while she was at the conference.
"I feel really fortunate that my kid is outside right now. He's not on the screen," she said. "But that is not the norm. I'm very well aware that I am raising a child who does not match the activities of his peers."
But Strommen said there is also growing concern about obesity and interest in a healthy, active lifestyle. People's motivation for using parks and trails is changing — with exercise now a leading reason, Strommen said. She said the DNR is trying to reach those people to promote activities like stand-up paddle boarding, fat-tire bike events and trail runs.
Strommen said the DNR also is updating older state parks and facilities while keeping hard-to-reach groups in mind, by adding things like Wi-Fi and better access for people with disabilities.
"I know that's like the worst thing for some people to hear is that you can access Wi-Fi in our campgrounds," she said. "But the reality is there are a lot of people that cannot leave their job if they can't connect. And if they don't feel like they can leave their job, they just won't go camping, and they won't take their family."