Outside in MN

Diversity in Minnesota state park use increases, but still doesn't reflect state demographics

Blue skies soar above High Falls.
Blue skies soar above the High Falls at Tettegouche State Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2019

A new survey from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that state parks are bringing in more visitors of color. 

“This is something we were really excited to see,” says Gratia Joice, a principal planner for DNR Parks and Trails. “The survey shows increasing diversity among state park visitors, specifically visitors of color, from five percent in 2017 to 11 percent in 2022.”

For 46 percent of these visitors of color in the past five years, it was their first state park visit.

It is one of the key findings from the 2022 State Park Visitor Study, a survey the DNR conducts every five years. For the study, DNR staff spoke with more than 2000 visitors in the summer of 2022.

Joice says the DNR has been prioritizing efforts to increase diversity among park users. Mainly, she says, through inclusive marketing and programs like the outdoor skill-building “I Can!” series and the Minnesota state parks library program, where park-goers can check out park passes for free at libraries across the state. She also credits the pandemic for the uptick in visitors.

While Joice says the increase in diversity among visitors is significant — more than doubling from the 2017 survey — it still lags behind Minnesota's population of communities of color, which is about 21 percent.

The DNR defines communities of color as including “race/ethnicity categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian or Asian American, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino, Middle Eastern or North African, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, biracial and multiracial.”

“While it is an improvement, there's still work to be done,” Joice says.

Another key finding in the report is the economic impact to the local communities around the park.

“Spending by state park visitors generates over $688 million per year in economic activity around the state,” Joice says. “On average, visitors are spending $67 per person per day. So this is money that is having a big impact on the local economy around state parks.” 

Out-of-state visitors, who make up about 15 percent of total visits, contribute about $147 million annually in local communities when visiting Minnesota state parks.

The study reports a 96 percent satisfaction rate for park users, but it also outlines how visitors would like to see parks change or improve, including refining the reservation system, adding lodging and camp sites, increasing visibility of rangers and staff and improving accessibility.

Visitors also want state parks to “include more Indigenous voices in park programming” and “decolonize signage and acknowledge park history.”

Joice said the DNR is currently planning park update and improvement projects funded by the $149.9 million “Get Out MORE (Modernize Outdoor Recreation Experiences)” initiative passed in the 2023 legislative session.

“Maintaining existing features and amenities, as well as upgrading and replacing outdated infrastructure, are all really important to meeting the needs of our visitors, but these things are really expensive,” Joice says. “So with this funding, the DNR will have the opportunity to catch up on some of the deferred maintenance and facility upgrades in the system.”

Investment will focus on five key areas: enhancing access to public lands and outdoor facilities for new users; revitalizing camping infrastructure; modernizing fisheries and fishing infrastructure; updating boating access; restoring streams and modernizing water-related outdoor recreation infrastructure.

Read the full survey report here.

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