MINNEAPOLIS (Tribune News Service) — An eclectic group of outdoors people organized by the state a year ago to study how Minnesota can better promote its natural places and make those resources available to more people will soon recommend, among other advice, a new office be opened to achieve those goals.

The Outdoor Recreation Task Force was formed by the Department of Natural Resources and the state's tourism arm, Explore Minnesota. The 21-member group reflects the varied landscape it's addressing and includes representatives from business and Native communities, organizations dedicated to youth, conservation and recreation, and more.

While finalizing its work after a public comment period, the group's draft recommendations double down on some familiar narratives, such as inclusion of underserved segments of society and the importance of outdoor recreation to public health. The new office recommended by the task force perhaps would be funded by the state and could meld and leverage these and other outdoor interests, the committee's members suggest.

Reducing barriers to equity in the outdoors and increasing diversity is a fundamental initiative under DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen. The topic was the central theme at the agency's annual stakeholders' roundtable held in January. Equity and inclusion also were topics last week in the Legislature, where questions were asked in the House Legacy Finance Committee about how well Legacy Amendment earmarks were reaching people of color.

Economic matters thread through the task force's work, too. National trade organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and Outdoor Recreation Roundtable have advocated for creation and funding of a Minnesota outdoor recreation office similar to those of some other states. Consumers spend almost $10 billion annually in Minnesota on recreation, creating upward of 100,000 jobs.

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Wisconsin opened a state-funded recreation office last March as part of its Department of Tourism. Michigan opened an Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry in September 2019 jointly operated by its Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

"It's what the priority of the state is," Stewart Lewis, OIA's advocacy coordinator, said of the targets for recreation offices. For example, Colorado's is focused heavily on economic development; Oregon's on parks and public land access. "The important thing is they break down the silos between state agencies no matter where they are."

This isn't a new idea in Minnesota. Companion bills in the state House and Senate stalled in the budgeting process in 2019. At the time, both envisioned an office operated by Explore Minnesota.

Those proposals needed to be narrower in scope, but they inspired the formation of the current task force, said John Edman, Explore Minnesota's director and the group's co-chair.

Near the completion of its work, task force members have intentionally developed recommendations that are "actionable," said Randolph Briley, a co-chair and special assistant to Strommen, looking to lean into a period when more people are outdoors because of the pandemic.

"(The task force) has really looked at, how can we unite? How can we be a community with a singular voice?" Briley added.

Yet how and whether Explore Minnesota or the DNR move on the recommendations when they are finalized is unclear.

Said Edman: "How are some of these ideas going to come to life? What truly does creating and funding an office of outdoor recreation mean? What does that office actually consist of?

"And how would it potentially even be funded? Is it a private effort? Is it a public effort? Is it a public-private effort? There are going to have to be more discussions about what exactly it would mean to take this to its next steps and become reality."

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