Minnesota launches new outdoor recreation office in a bid to be ‘top 10′ state for recreation

A new Minnesota office aims to catch up with other states that are marketing outdoor recreation as an economic boost for creating jobs and drawing visitors.

Twenty other states nationwide have set up similar outdoor recreation offices in the last decade. The new Minnesota office is part of Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism arm, and seeks to foster collaboration among state agencies and better support the industry to attract visitors and business to the state’s lakes, rivers and forests.

“The people of Minnesota are so passionate about the outdoors,” said Randolph Briley, the state’s new deputy director of outdoor recreation, who is leading the work. “But when we share our economic numbers and jobs numbers, we tend to be in the middle. There’s plenty of room for us to grow and expand.”

Minnesota ranks 18th in the nation for outdoor recreation’s economic output. The industry brought in $11.7 billion in 2022, up from about $9 billion in 2017, and it employs nearly 94,000 people, 3% of Minnesota’s workforce. Briley hopes the state can advance to one of the Top 10.

Last year, Gov. Tim Walz announced the first-of-its-kind partnership between four agencies — the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Explore Minnesota and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR). Briley is the sole full-time employee of the outdoor recreation office, meeting frequently with liaisons from the other agencies.

He said Minnesota needs to better compete with states, including Michigan, Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin, which started its outdoor recreation office in 2019.

“Minnesota has a terrific foundation and we just want to help take it to the next level,” Briley said. “We know Minnesota can compete with some of the top states in the nation when it comes to outdoor recreation.”

His work directly ties into Explore Minnesota’s new goals to change national perceptions about Minnesota and bolster travel year-round, as well as inspire more Americans to relocate to Minnesota, which has more jobs than workers.

“Outdoor experiences are really an important part of who we are as Minnesotans,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen added. “But there was a lot of untapped growth potential.”

Supporting the sector

Having an office dedicated to the outdoor recreation sector better supports the industry and economic development, said Chris Perkins,vice president of programs at Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a Washington D.C.-based group that urges states to establish these state offices.

“Outdoor rec businesses can fall through the cracks,” Perkins said. “I think Minnesota’s model is pretty cool and innovative.”

Michigan’s office has been instrumental in setting up grants to help businesses that are reliant on snowfall recover during a winter with unusually low snow. In Vermont, the office created resources for outdoor recreation businesses after flooding, Perkins said.

There’s a growing national movement for states to invest more in outdoor recreation, he said, because of the clear benefits, boosting the economy and workforce, improving the health of residents and drawing visitors.

Minnesota’s partnership was developed after a 21-member task force convened in 2020 and 2021. Since starting his new role last year, Briley started traveling around the state to meet with industry representatives.

Briley also started a monthly industry newsletter, is convening a community advisory group and planning to develop an annual report like Wisconsin does, showing the economic impact of outdoor recreation in local communities. This summer, he’s also launching a podcast highlighting outdoor recreation stories and planning to start an annual outdoor industry summit in 2025, similar to those in Maine and Colorado.

Investing in recreation

Minnesota has a vibrant outdoor system — from top-ranked urban parks to a national park and the expansive Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Several large businesses call the state home, including Wenonah Canoe in Winona to Winnebago and Polaris. Not surprisingly in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, boating and fishing is the top recreational activity by GDP, followed by RVing and hunting/shooting/trapping.

Outdoor recreation flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic. Minnesotans flocked to state parks in record numbers, like many national parks across the country experienced. Some areas weren’t prepared for the crowds. In the Boundary Waters, which also saw a dramatic increase in visitors, some campsites were trashed and trees were chopped down illegally.

That’s why, the partnership has to focus both on growing the outdoor recreation economy and increasing stewardship, Strommen said.

“If we’re not taking care of the lands and the waters that are driving that industry, then that’s going to be a problem down the road,” she said. “The two have to go hand and hand. You can’t just grow the industry and not grow the stewardship side.”

In Minnesota last year, the Legislature approved spending nearly $150 million for outdoor recreation in the “Get Out MORE” bill, which stands for Modernize Outdoor Recreation Experiences. The money is helping increase accessibility to parks and modernize aging campgrounds, among other improvements.

This year, Strommen said Walz has proposed $71 million in the bonding bill to maintain buildings, campgrounds and other natural resource assets and $2 million for increasing accessibility to state parks and wildlife areas.

Being more unified and organized as a sector could drive more funding to outdoor recreation, said Joe Henry of Lake of the Woods Tourism, who was on the task force.

“It’s good for the economy, it’s good for getting people involved who aren’t currently involved [in the outdoors] … it’s good in a myriad of ways,” Henry said. “But these things haven’t been addressed because we haven’t had a formal office of outdoor recreation.”

The partnership also hopes to unify a sector that sometimes is at odds, such as snowmobilers or bicyclists vying for the same space as hikers or skiers. Strommen said the partnership can focus on adding more places for people to recreate, a common interest for all outdoor enthusiasts.

In Duluth, Hansi Johnson, who works for the Minnesota Land Trust and also served on the task force, said the new partnership can channel the different recreation sectors.

“We have so much to offer … in the state,” Johnson said. “We just need to package and bundle them together.”

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