Some Minnesota libraries offer users chance to check out the great outdoors

Woman poses next to sign02
Kali Freeman, community library manager at Rondo Community Library in St. Paul, next to a sign about the Minnesota State Park Library Program, a popular DNR initiative.
Regina Medina | MPR News

Updated: 9:25 a.m.

Kali Freeman, the community library manager at Rondo Community Library in St. Paul, says the state park pass program opens up worlds. 

"We all get kind of stuck in our day to day, and there's lots of hoops that we have to jump through in order to travel anywhere,” says Freeman. 

The pass, she says, removes some of the monetary barriers which keep some people away from the parks.  

The Department of Natural Resources launched the Minnesota State Park Library Program two years ago.  It now includes 99 libraries that offer 175 passes. Not every library qualifies to be part of the program. It must be near a public school with 40 percent enrollment in free and reduced lunch. It must also be located in a city with a median household income of $58,000 or less. 

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Arielle Courtney is a DNR consultant and coordinates the program. She says DNR surveys of library park pass users show 100 percent of respondents believe the program should continue. Ninety-nine percent of users want to visit a state park again. But 68 percent say they wouldn't or didn't know if they would buy a permit in the future.

"The library park pass is filling a big gap of people who maybe either they can't afford to purchase the permit, or they're not like a regular enough visitor that they feel like it would be a worthwhile investment to buy the annual one,” she says.  “And so the library pass is increasing their visits to state parks that way."

That park passes fly off the shelves at the Columbia Heights Public Library in Anoka County, said its Library Director Renee Dougherty.

Exterior of Columbia Heights Public Library
Exterior of Columbia Heights Public Library in Anoka County on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023 in Columbia Heights.
Regina Medina | MPR News

“Park passes have been really popular at Columbia Heights. During the summer months, often people will come in and we don't have any passes to check out to them, which tells me that people are hearing about the program, are excited about the program, are coming to the library to get involved,” she said.

Nuclear families are the main users, Dougherty said.

“We see grandparents who might have the (grand)kids for the summer and want to do something fun that's not so expensive. We have a lot of immigrant families in this community who might not be aware of the park system. So we've tried to promote the park passes when we do story times when our children's librarian visits the schools,” she said. “We tell anyone we can about the park passes. And I think that's part of why we they've been successful in Columbia Heights because the staff is always taking an opportunity to tell people if someone checks out a rock-climbing book, they'll say, ‘Hey, did you know we have park passes? You can check out a state park pass for seven days.’”

Courtney says the idea came from similar initiatives in Vermont and Colorado. It also came from DNR surveys that revealed the barriers to visiting a state park. Transportation, time and cost were some. A state park day pass costs $7 while the annual pass is $35.

"And so we know that that is a barrier for some people,” she says. “And because we're a public agency and we serve everyone we wanted to see if we could find ways to remove the financial barrier for people to visit a state park.”

Courtney says the DNR contracts with the libraries will continue through 2025. This year and next, the DNR will evaluate the program to ascertain how and where to expand it.