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With nowhere to go indoors, Wisconsin flocked to state parks in pandemic

Posted at 11:28 AM, Mar 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-29 23:28:38-04

Long before there was a vaccine for COVID-19 there was a tonic that eased the pain of lockdowns and social distancing.

It was a remedy as simple as getting outside.

Research from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found the pandemic drove people to Wisconsin state parks in staggering numbers.

According to research director Jason Stein, the parks became a refuge for people with nowhere else to spend their sudden abundance of free time.

"It seemed like you could look at just anything cross country skiing, birdwatching, hunting, fishing. You could look just anywhere and see evidence of increased outdoor participation," Stein said in a Zoom interview.

For example, sales of state park stickers were up 42 percent in 2020, compared to 2019.

Fishing licenses were up 13 percent, including more than 93,000 first-timers.

And at Lion's Den nature preserve in Ozaukee County, 269,000 people passed through the gates in 2020.

That's two-and-a-half times the number in a normal year.

One indication this interest in the outdoors is not a passing fad: data shows people spent a lot of money on stuff to do outdoors.

Sales of fishing tackle, camping equipment, and hunting gear all went up during the pandemic.

Which means there are a lot more people with a reason to go outside now and for years to come.

For the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, this new popularity means new opportunities to promote the parks.

Diane Brusoe is deputy administrator of the state parks system. She said the challenge is getting people to return post-pandemic.

"So many people have their favorite properties they will continue to come to year after year. What we also want to capitalize on is sharing an awareness of the entire state park system," Brusoe said.

Already, the Evers administration has proposed spending $70 million over the next decade to buy more state lands and fund new parks.

It's not clear if legislative republicans will go along with that plan, but Jason Stein says it's obvious Wisconsin's natural resources are more popular than ever.

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