There’s always enthusiasm for the arrival of a new year. It’s a phenomenon common to many cultures, even though not all share the same calendar or start to their new year. Few would dispute that 2020 was a year we may be glad to have behind us. The most obvious reason is the highly infectious COVID-19 pandemic that had such negative health and economic effects, here and around the world.

Negative social effects, too, because close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 could lead to anything from something totally harmless to something deadly. As a result, closures, cancellations and a great deal of social distancing meant that many of the things that give our lives meaning were off-limits, often not by our own choice.

One of the common observations in Minnesota and elsewhere in the country as we slogged through a difficult year was that people were escaping to the outdoors. It was manifest in increases in fishing and hunting license sales, camping, hiking, on-the-water recreation and Nature-related activities, to name some of the most obvious. This is almost certain to remain true during the winter ahead, as the pandemic continues and the need for caution remains.

The reasons for the spike in outdoor activity are two-fold. For one, these activities could be pursued with social distancing and comparative safety. I suspect also that these pursuits, more than some, have rejuvenating value beyond merely being ways to pass the time.

I remember from college years long ago a familiar poster that hung in many dormitory rooms, featuring 19th century naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau. He wrote in the mid-1800’s—quoted on these posters—that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” For us, now, it could be said that by spending time in the outdoors we are preserving our sanity, giving ourselves respite from the grief and bad news that have become part of a daily news diet that can be poisonous if we don’t have an antidote.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Thoreau spoke of wildness, not wilderness. To me, as I read his words, I find him speaking of the importance of contrast between everyday life—with its pressures and obligations—and the rejuvenation that can be found in pursuits in the outdoors. In our world—so civilized, and so different from his world more than a century and a half ago—we do not necessarily need to be in true wilderness to experience this rejuvenation.

But we do need places where the forces of Nature are present. No one feels this more keenly than those who hunt and fish. There is a place for the hunting preserve, the “game farm” as it once was more appropriately called, where you can pay for the opportunity to shoot a pheasant or a raised mallard; or even a whitetail deer behind a fence. But it would be a surprise to me if most who have hunted truly wild game did not prefer pursuit of such creatures in their wild and natural habitat.

Anglers are more accustomed to artificial propagation being a part of their sport. The stocking of young walleyes, muskies or trout where natural reproduction cannot entirely sustain a population is common. Such fish hopefully grow to catchable size in sufficient numbers to support the fishery. Despite a hatchery origin, they are caught under natural circumstances, not under tame conditions like the “trout pond” at an outdoor sports show. It may not even be poor fish habitat, but rather the amount of angling pressure, that dictates supplemental stocking. Nonetheless, many—in their heart of hearts—might admit they find it especially satisfying to catch fish that are the product of a lake, river or stream that sustains fish on its own.

Whether the outdoor activity is hunting, angling, hiking, camping, cross-country skiing or some other outdoors pursuit, the common denominator is a need for places to take part in them. With limited exceptions, Minnesotans do not generally pursue these activities on their own lands. We depend on public access, whether it be on lands owned by government agencies—which really means lands owned by all the state’s citizens—or on private lands where there are public access agreements.

Minnesota has an enviable record in providing good public access to our lakes and waterways. Likewise, we have state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) to provide public hunting opportunities and other recreation year-round. We have state parks, Scenic and Natural Areas (SNAs), state forests, and—in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—National Wildlife Refuges, and Waterfowl Production Areas open to hunting and other outdoor recreations.

But there are some clouds on the horizon, too. The backbone of the best Minnesota upland bird hunting over the last generation has been the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a federal program to take marginal agricultural land out of production, with soil and water conservation benefits, and—not least—benefits to game and nongame wildlife, including the hugely popular ring-necked pheasant. But farmers’ acres enrolled in CRP have dropped by about one-third in the past two decades, due in part to reduced incentives for conservation practices that benefit wildlife. Hunting success has fallen with it. Additional financing in the next federal farm bill would be welcomed to rectify this.

Federal Clean Water Act regulations were recently rewritten, and became final last June. These new regulations treat wetlands, streams and other bodies of water as separate from one another, even though they are connected, thereby removing them from federal oversight, and leaving it to states and local units of government—with a resulting patchwork of rules—to regulate such things as wetland drainage and water pollution. Loss of wetlands means a loss of wildlife habitat and recreational opportunity. Lack of uniform clean water standards puts the health of our lakes and rivers at risk, not to mention human health from contaminated groundwater from inadequately regulated agricultural and industrial practices that impact our waters.

There is also some hostility to public land ownership in Minnesota, most evident in rural areas. County boards have blocked approval of sales by willing private landowners to—for example—the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, acquisitions for wildlife habitat and expanded public recreation opportunities. Loss of tax property revenue has been the most common excuse, even though there is a mechanism to replace potential local revenue loss through a payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILT) program. Actions like this mean that a growing Minnesota population could miss out on the potential for even greater outdoor recreation opportunities.

Minnesotans are blessed with outdoor recreation opportunities and access that would be the envy of citizens in many parts of the country. It’s a blessing, especially in these extraordinary times. But that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down, or miss opportunities to make things even better.