This is the second story in a 4-part Great Lakes Echo series on environmental equity and access to the outdoors in the region
By Abigail Comar
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reports success after the first official year of its state parks library program designed to open outdoor recreation opportunities to lower-income residents.
The program, in collaboration with libraries across the state, offers free seven-day entry passes for state parks. The passes can be checked out from participating local libraries and eliminate the cost associated with entering state parks.
The program targets Minnesotans in low-income communities to increase their access to outdoor areas.
Participating libraries are in cities and counties with a median annual household income of $58,000 or less, or where nearby schools have more than 40% of students enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program.
Arielle Courtney, a partnership development consultant for Minnesota State Parks and Trails, said the project began several years ago. She had first heard about the concept on a trip in Vermont and was inspired to bring a similar program to Minnesota.
There were a few pilot programs in Minneapolis-St. Paul metro libraries in 2017 and 2018 to test how the idea would translate to state parks.
At that point, Courtney said, pilot participants weren’t focusing on low-income communities. Now, those pilot libraries are no longer participating in the program.
“I thought it would be a great way to increase equitable access to state parks and recreation areas,” Courtney said. “Our normal fee per vehicle is $7 per day or $35 for the year.”
“It isn’t a huge cost, but for some people it’s just not in their budget.”
Courtney said the pilot programs helped the DNR and library collaboration team figure out the logistics for implementing a library park pass program. They determined a seven-day pass would best suit the needs of Minnesotans.
“Many of our state parks are pretty spread out,” Courtney said. “A lot of them are a bit of a drive away, so we wanted to give sufficient time in the seven days to visit one or more parks.”
Informal survey data indicate that the top-visited parks using the library pass are Itasca State Park, Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park and Whitewater State Park, according to Courtney.
Additionally, the passes are on single-use pieces of paper that users can recycle after their seven days instead of physically returning them to a library.
“We realized if we were going to expand the program, we really wanted to serve the people who actually need help with purchasing the state park permit,” Courtney said. “It’s still an important part of our revenue, so if people can afford the park pass, we really want them to buy it.”
Expansion of the program shifted towards focusing on low-income communities. Now almost 100 libraries participate across the state.
Therese Sonnek, the library branch manager for White Bear Lake in Ramsey County, was involved in one of the pilot programs. She said it was popular in the community but wasn’t serving the hoped-for demographic.
“It was largely people checking it out that were more affluent than we had hoped,” Sonnek said. “The program in its next iteration targeted lower-income communities, so White Bear Lake was not included in the next phase of the program.”
Sonnek said the program is introducing new people to state parks. It started in June 2021 and will continue through June 2025.
Minnesota Parks and Trails just finished its report about the first year with almost 2,000 pass checkouts statewide, according to Courtney.
She also said the checkout rates matched trends of state park visitation rates with more checkouts during the warmer months. July and September had the highest rates of pass checkouts.
Participants can fill out a voluntary survey providing feedback on their experience. One unexpected finding from the surveys, according to Courtney, is that about 50% of those responding were 55 or older.
“We have quite a few people at the retirement age,” Courtney said. “From the comments section, we found that a lot of them are on fixed incomes or they’re taking their grandchildren.”
“I think that it’s kind of a nice way too for older people to stay active and healthy. It’s something that surprised us, but we’re happy to hear it.”
The survey also asks what pass users did while in the parks.
Courtney said the most common responses were activities like picnicking, hiking, walking and photographing nature – ”all kinds of activities that don’t require a lot of expensive equipment or skills to participate in. It was kind of validating to see that’s what people were doing.”
Both Courtney and Sonnek said they’ve received positive feedback from people who said they’re enjoying the program and would return to a state park again.
The report for the first year showed that almost 99% of those surveyed wanted to visit a park again but 66% didn’t know if they would buy a permit in the future, according to Courtney.
“That’s a pretty huge chunk of people who want to come to a state park again but would rely on the library pass to do that,” Courtney said. “We’re filling a really important gap in visitors.”
Courtney said the benefits of spending time outside are huge for physical and emotional health.
“The outdoors are restorative for people,” Courtney said. “We wanted to remove any additional barriers that might prevent people from using our public lands as a way to be well.”
Courtney and Sonnek identified transportation as one barrier that the program hasn’t addressed.
“If you don’t have a car or don’t have time to go to state parks, it helps to get passes, but those people still need more help to get out to the parks,” Sonnek said.
Courtney said the transportation problem is slightly beyond the scope of the library pass program, but is still important to recognize.
“People are using the pass to save money, but obviously it costs money to drive your car and fill up the gas,” Courtney said. “While a lot of people have cars, it’s still a cost to get there.”
“That’s been brought up quite a bit as an area we should consider looking at. How can we partner with the Department of Transportation and think of other ideas to connect people to the parks?”
Courtney said program coordinators will think about the problem as they move forward.
However, she said she is still confident about the program’s success so far in helping people get to state parks.
“Knowing that cost might be a barrier for some people – and those people would probably be the ones that really need support – has been one of my main motivations with the program,” Courtney said. “To reduce barriers in getting people outside so they can reap the benefits of it.”