Task Force Recommends New Office to Make State Parks More Inviting to Diverse Users

Aug 18, 2021News

Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
Whether you're an adventurer, antiquer, foodie or historian, Minnesota's Mesabi Iron Range has the perfect activity for you.

Asha Shoffner grew up fishing with her grandfather and playing outdoors, but it wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she truly started to spend time in nature.

Even though the St. Paul native loves camping and exploring the outdoors, she sometimes felt on hikes and trips with her white partner that others didn’t want her there.

“The looks I would get out in the woods were like ‘you’re not welcome here,’” said Shoffner, who was adopted from India.

Shoffner, 37, has since dedicated her personal and professional time to creating welcoming spaces for people of color outdoors. Today she works as an environmental and outdoor education program coordinator for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, where she has helped develop a series of outdoor recreational and learning events for people of color, led by people of color.

Shoffner was a member of the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Task Force, a 21-person group formed in 2020 to plan for growth and increasing equitable access to nature recreation statewide. The Task Force published its report in late April, with a recommendation to create a new, independent Outdoor Recreation Office. That office would be tasked with increasing access and participation for Minnesotans of color and  helping people passionate about seemingly opposite hobbies like bird watching and bird hunting unite in defense of natural conservation.

People of color make up about 20 percent of Minnesota’s population, but only about 5 percent of state park visitors, according to task force co-chair Randolph Briley with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“Obviously there’s a huge gap,” Briley said.

Increasing access

In 2020, Shoffner started a Facebook group called BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities. It was a way for people to find outings, tips, and potentially new friends. Today the group has more than 900 members.

Many members joined the group for safety reasons, Shoffner said. People wanted to do conventional outdoor activities like hiking, paddling, and fishing, but they wanted to do so around people like themselves and not feel like the only person of color in the woods.

At work, Shoffner and St. Paul Parks and Recreation launched the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Park Ambassadors program. The program was funded in part by a grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District. It allowed St. Paul to offer programming for people of color, led by people of color. The program hosted 19 events in 2020 with activities such as camping, canoeing, fishing, ice fishing, an edible plants hike, and even an invertebrate study.

The program has tried to reach immigrant groups and non-English speakers, too. A Spanish speaking guide led a Latino hiking group on walks all over St. Paul. This year, Shoffner said the parks department is looking to hire someone from the Karen community to teach an outdoor cooking class.

“The work we’re doing feels really authentic,” she said.

The BIPOC Park Ambassadors group has been a programming highlight in the past year, according to Andy Rodriguez, recreation manager for St. Paul Parks and Recreation. It attracted new users as well; 90 percent of participants had never registered for park programming.

“I think it’s expanded our scope significantly,” Rodriguez said.

A group of people are gathered by a river bank trying to identify a fish via a chart

Other recreation departments are taking notice. Three Rivers Parks District in the west metro and Mississippi Park Connection have begun offering similar programming.  

Rodriguez said more funding from the state could help such programs have a larger impact.

Understanding needs from different cultures is key to making them feel welcome at state parks, Briley said. Minnesota state parks started to install larger picnic tables in recent years after conversations with members of the Hmong community, Briley said. Hmong families often camp in large groups, and were looking for larger tables to accommodate their needs. It’s a simple change that can make a park more inviting. 

“We constantly need to engage with our local communities to see what would make a state park inviting for them,” Briley said.  

Office of outdoor recreation

The Outdoor Recreation Task Force was composed of people from different public, private-sector, and nonprofit organizations involved in the outdoors. Representatives came from tribal nations, tourism boards, and even Winnebago Industries. 

The task force was created to help the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism office, decide if an independent office of outdoor recreation is needed. 

There are 16 states with such offices nationwide. Every state’s office is different, Briley said. Some are part of the tourism board, others are divisions of the department of natural resources or the commerce department. How Minnesota’s office would or could be created has yet to be determined, Briley said. 

The new office doesn’t yet exist, but the task force has recommended goals for it. The first? Increase outdoor participation by improving access and equitability for people of color. 

Shoffner is happy she participated in the task force, and said she appreciated that white members routinely brought up equity issues. Increasing access for people of color goes beyond putting up a welcome sign, she said, but should include asking communities directly what they want to see in their parks. 

She has learned that people believe being in nature with others who look like them is a real benefit. Today in education, leaders have recognized the importance of having teachers who come from diverse backgrounds. The outdoors should be no different, she said. 

“My hope is that more and more organizations start doing BIPOC-specific programming led by BIPOC people,” Shoffner said. 

Outdoor recreation is a big business in Minnesota, generating more than $9 billion per year, about 2.4 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor recreation means lost dollars for the state and private businesses. A lot of those businesses are starting to realize they aren’t tapping into the market as well as they could be, Briley said.

“It’s a moral issue but it’s also an economic imperative for the industry,” Briley said.  

Outdoor enthusiasts have differing and, at times, contrasting interests. Some want to snowshoe softly across a trail others want to rip through it on a snowmobile. To unite those communities, Briley said, it’s important to focus on the common interest: conserving nature and making it accessible to all.

 

A group pf people wearing protective face masks are taking a break from hiking to gather for a group photo

This article first appeared May 7, 2021 in Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to reporting on Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color: www.sahanjournal.com. It’s republished here with permission.

Images by Asha Shoffner

Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
Fergus Falls is the gateway to the scenic Central Lakes State Trail
Hutchinson MN: Home of the Luce Line State Trail
Parks and Trails Council of Minnesota
Experience Minnesota's North Shore fall splendor in beautiful Cook County
Ski, Snowboard, Fat Bike with a lift assist at Detroit Mountain!

Keep up with the latest MN Trails news and events in our newsletter

About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.

Save

More stories:

Save the Date for These 2023 Bike Rides

Road, trail, gravel, you name it. Take a look at our list of 2023 bike rides and mark your calendars!

Three Awesome Minnesota Trail & Beer Pairings in 2023

Reap your reward for all of the hard work you do on the trails and treat yourself to a post-ride, barley-based electrolyte drink.

Cycling the Skyline

A bike trip with a view: Skyline Parkway Scenic Byway travels the length of Duluth at the crest of the hill.

Trail Pairings: A Visit to Preston, MN

We visited the Root River Harmony-Preston Valley trail system to pair our ride with two breweries.

Make Your Escape: A Cuyuna Christmas

Writer Tonja Sahaydak spent Christmas with the family in a Cuyuna yurt and went dashing through the snow.

Quiet Time at Tettegouche

This iconic state park is a year-round destination on Minnesota’s North Shore.

Eight Numbers To Get You out of the Woods

It’s dark, it’s cold, and you didn’t expect to be out here this long.

Trail Pairings: Rendezvous Brewing

If you’re into loop rides and craft beers, you should visit Paul Bunyan and his sweetheart, Lucette.

2022 in the Rearview Mirror

I’ve grown more appreciative of the little moments that help explain the ‘why’ of life. I didn’t know it at the time, but in retrospect these 2022 moments stand out.

7 Must-Do Things on the Historic Bluff Country Scenic Byway

Take a fall drive and discover what’s waiting in the hills of southeastern Minnesota. 

Trail Pairings: Mineral Springs Brewery

The beers at Mineral Springs Brewery come with stories and the fat bike trails are groomed-a perfect match!

Visit our trail-friendly sponsor!
Visit Saint Cloud, the gateway of Minnesota's famous and scenic Lake Wobegon Trail

Please join our newsletter mailing list!

It’s your source for sneak previews of the next print issue, new trails to explore, upcoming events and the latest blog posts. We promise to keep it brief, entertaining and relevant and you can unsubscribe anytime. We will not share your info with anyone.

* indicates required