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DNR, state tourism working together, seeking private partnerships as well

Forming partnerships is key.

That's what Department of Natural Resources and Explore Minnesota Tourism are doing and encouraging in communities throughout the state.

At a meeting in Itasca State Park, near Park Rapids, DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten said, "we are all, in our capacity of life, going through a lot of changes." He told tourism professionals, city representatives, media representatives and other interested individuals about a change in the budget that led to making changes to maintain the cultural identity of the outdoors, and keeping communities connected.

For state parks, he said, there are two sources of funding -- the users of the parks (buying firewood, park permits, etc.), and state funding, which is continuously a challenge. That challenge has forced the DNR to look at partnering with other entities to promote the parks, and ultimately, the state.

One of those ways is a piece of legislation that was passed, offering free fishing in Minnesota state parks. The intention was to get new fishermen hooked on the sport and promote it throughout the state.

Another way is bringing geocaching -- basically an "electronic treasure hunt" -- to the parks.

It's not just the public entity partnerships either. DNR is pushing for private ones as well. The state parks have partnered with REI. The company donates everything for a campsite and offers it to families who have never camped before. If the family likes the experience, REI is hoping they'll come buy all their camping needs at their store, and the state parks are hoping they'll return as well.

Another private partnership was formed with Bear Paw Resort near Itasca State Park. The owners partnered with the DNR to buy daily passes to Itasca at a discounted rate and then offer them to their campers. They said it was a good sell for their resort, and it brought 100 carloads of people into Itasca.

"Natural resources and tourism -- that's a marriage that was made when I started this 10 years ago," Explore Minnesota Tourism Director John Edman said. "Natural resources are why people come to Minnesota."

It's the parks, lakes, fishing that bring people to visit Minnesota.

"We have to work hand-in-hand" with the state and tourism to support the state, he added.

"I don't want us to forget how important travel and tourism is to us. It's an $11 billion industry," he said.

Fifteen percent of sales tax revenue comes from the leisure and hospitality industry, he said, which provides 244,000 (10 percent) of the jobs in Minnesota.

And while tourism throughout the United States is being impacted due to the economy, "people are still traveling," he said. Habits have changed though.

Travelers are staying closer to home, making last minute decisions as to where they go, and are participating in more festivals and events. They are budget conscious, he said, but it doesn't mean they aren't out there.

There are 8 million plus state park visitors a year. Two million of them stay in the parks and two million spend the night in a surrounding community. The remainder are day visitors.

Edman said it's now about amplifying what is in the state's own backyard -- like the headwaters of the Mississippi River, for instance.

"We need to get people out to enjoy Mother Nature in a different spot," Nelson said.