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Ingrid Schneider

University of Minnesota alum Ingrid Schneider, who also heads up the U's Tourism Center, is looking at why Minnesotans are participating less in outdoor recreational activities.

About face

U's tourism director tracks the changing faces of outdoor recreation.

By Sara Specht

It must be the video games, or just a crazy, busy schedule. Whatever the reason, something is keeping more people, and generally younger people, inside and away from Minnesota parks and outdoor recreation. In recent years, state and national parks have drawn fewer visitors, and the state has issued fewer fishing and hunting licenses. Most outdoor recreational activities in Minnesota have seen decreasing participation.

Following these trends is Ingrid Schneider, director of the University of Minnesota Tourism Center and professor in the Department of Forest Resources, who works with researchers and communities to figure out why times are changing and, hopefully, how to change with them.

"Evidence points to an ongoing and fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation," says Schneider. "But we do know that more than 30 percent of Minnesotans do participate in all sorts of outdoor activities, and the majority of Minnesotans believe outdoor recreation is important to them and to the economy."

In fact, not all outdoor activities are experiencing a decline. All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) sales have been increasing since the mid-1990s, and Minnesota is one of the top 10 states in ATV participation. It is the users who have changed, and they're getting older. In the past, adults under age 35 reported the highest per-capita recreation hours; in a more recent survey, that group reported fewer hours than adults from 35 to 54. Parks and recreation managers have been left with the challenge of appealing to the sensibilities of new audiences, leading to the evolution of activities designed to ease access and engage the video game generation. Geocaching, for instance, provides participants with GPS equipment for an outdoor treasure hunting game. But Schneider thinks there may be more to the trends than generational impacts.

"I think supporting and adding complexity to the issue is a diversified population," she says. "The face of Minnesota is changing. In order to be successful, Minnesota recreation opportunities will have to change with it."

Schneider predicts that a next step for recreation managers will be to understand and plan for a more culturally diverse Minnesota. New studies will have to consider communicating to groups with different needs, different recreational traditions, language barriers, and perhaps a perceived sense of unwelcomeness.

So, what new activities and technologies will evolve from this next stage of development for Minnesota's lakes and parks?

Schneider says that while efforts now are focusing on making outdoor recreation available and accessible for groups that may not have grown up knowing how to fish or camp, the long term is just too hard to predict. For example, who could have foreseen heliskiing?

"If only I had a crystal ball," she says. "We see the population projections. The next generation is going to look different, both in their participation and their characteristics. Recreation managers will be successful if they can be attentive to their visitors and their non-visitors alike."