Record-Breaking Use of State Parks in 2020 Undercuts Claims in DNR Equity Report

The pandemic led to a record-setting increase in Minnesotans looking to escape lockdowns by visiting and camping in state parks. But you’d never know it by the Department of Natural Resources’ breathless new draft report on the alleged lack of equitable access to the parks and outdoors for a handful of special interest groups. For example:

The importance of equity, diversity and inclusivity were prominent in Task Force discussions. Use, services, support, and access barriers in outdoor spaces and recreation impede Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities, women, people with disabilities, and people with low- or no-income and is a serious concern that Minnesota needs to address. One overarching theme from the Task Force is to build a culture of the outdoors so that Minnesota is known as THE place where EVERYONE is welcome to enjoy Minnesota’s natural resources.

The Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Task Force (ORTF) was formed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Explore Minnesota last year. On the surface the task force’s accusations and conclusions don’t square with the massive usage of state parks both near and far from the Twin Cities, as recently reported in the Duluth News Tribune.

State parks were more popular than ever last year with people seeking outdoor recreation during COVID-19. Visitation at state parks near cities increased 60 percent in 2020 while statewide visitors were up almost 25 percent. Annual park permit sales also jumped about 40 percent.

It only stands to reason that Minnesotans across the board were motivated to get out of their homes during the state shutdowns, including members of the special interest groups focused on in the equity report. There’s no evidence to the contrary in the state’s equity report.

Indeed, the individual most responsible for preventing more Minnesotans from using the parks was Gov. Tim Walz, who ordered the parks closed at one point and whose executive orders limited the size of gatherings.

Yet the DNR/Explore Minnesota report insists there’s a hostile outdoors culture statewide.

The Task Force expressed concern that there are isolated and privileged outdoor spaces and recreation activities where racism, sexism, and homophobia have been present with limited recourse and respite for those that experience these types of injustice and harassment. In the Task Force’s conversations, it was acknowledged that not enough work has been done to support underrepresented populations’ outdoor groups and clubs, or individual customers; or to address barriers unique to their lived experiences that limit their participation in outdoor recreation and outdoor spaces.

Now Walz wants to erect another barrier between some Minnesotans and their parks in the form of a sizable fee increase this legislative session. Not exactly a tax on the rich as Walz likes to claim.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is proposing increasing annual state park vehicle permit fees from $35 to $45. The daily permit would increase from $7 to $10.

The fee increases would raise about $2.6 million in additional revenue. Without it, state officials say the state park fund faces a nearly $2 million annual shortfall by 2023 despite more users than ever.

If the DNR really wants more Minnesotans to enjoy the outdoors, they might consider cutting fees and divisive task forces that drive up the agency’s budget and the cost to all Minnesotans who use the parks.