ST PAUL, Minn. — The COVID pandemic created major challenges for many organizations, but few had the unique problem faced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
With imposed restrictions shutting down other recreational venues and opportunities, state residents turned to the great outdoors in droves, plenty of them without a great deal of experience in both traditional (think hunting and fishing) and non-traditional (say geo-caching or mushrooming) activities.
In normal times, such a boom in business would be enthusiastically embraced: DNR experts would have capitalized on the situation with face-to-face, hands-on seminars and classes to educate and encourage newbies on the best ways to enjoy Minnesota's vast natural resources. But with in-person contact prohibited, "traditional" outdoor learning just wasn't possible.
DNR Training Specialist and Volunteer Mentor Network Coordinator Benji Kohn recalls how a "Learn to Turkey Hunt" program scheduled for April of 2019 was designed using an in-person format, but the COVID state shutdown made that impossible. Organizers brainstormed and figured that instead of canceling, they'd try shifting the experience to an online format.
No one was sure how it would go, but Kohn says the class was an undisputed success. An 11-class "Learn to Hunt" virtual workshop a few months later drummed up an unanticipated amount of interest and got DNR educators thinking.
"Through that experience, we kind of developed this, you know, 'maybe we're onto something here.' Let's start a weekly webinar where we can just introduce people to something to do outside in Minnesota that weekend," Kohn remembers. "I think it was more of a situational thing, we were just using what we had and upper management's like, go for it. You know, 'this is what we got.' And from that, I think it's really kind of blossomed into this program. We're going on our 96th episode this week."
The episodes Kohn is referring to make up the DNR's lunchtime webinar program, an offshoot of the early online seminars that have become a weekly staple. He plays congenial host every Wednesday at noon, when interested parties sign up and log on to learn about some aspect of outdoor life from the agency's top experts. There are traditional offerings like urban muskie fishing or small game hunting and trapping, along with broader activities like foraging, nature photography and building a fire in the great outdoors without matches or lighter fluid.
Kohn says attendance can run into the hundreds, even thousands... and the virtual format erases traditional boundaries.
"We have people come in from all over the country that are tuning into this, which is pretty cool. We've had people from out-of-country, I think New Zealand is our furthest away, they've tuned in to learn a little bit about deer hunting in northern Minnesota, which is pretty cool," Kohn says. "It's a great way to reach out to a lot more people than we could in person. And it's been a pretty successful program."
An added benefit to the lunchtime webinars is that they showcase DNR staffers who are truly experts in their chosen fields. Jobs in the great outdoors tend to attract people who are quiet and low-key, not those who seek out the spotlight. But get them talking about a subject they love, Kohn laughs, and you can hardly get them off the mic.
"The ones that are passionate about their work, and passionate about sharing that with others, are the ones stepping up and saying, 'Hey, I got this,'" Kohn says. "Madeline (Pletta, DNR mussel propagation biologist), who is talking about mussels here next week, is one of those people. She's super passionate about mussels and how they're affecting the Mississippi River. And she's going to come on and she really wants to do more outreach and share that story with Minnesota."
"As difficult or as awkward as presenting to my computer screen is (my audience was my dog)," Pletta emailed with a smiley face emoji, "these presentations are so beneficial for the small programs like ours within the DNR. They help educate the public about what and why we are doing the work we do! I really enjoy my job raising juvenile mussels, but I love talking with the public and educating them on the unknown. And this platform has the ability to reach an indefinite number of individuals – which is so cool."
"Considering how many presentations I have given, I think this one could have the largest impact," Pletta added.
One thing in question is whether the webinars do (or can) play a part in increasing the number of people buying sporting licenses, income that feeds the DNR budget. Kohn says a quick questionnaire attendees take during the signup process suggests only 16% of those attending the webinars are license holders. Still, he believes engagement has an impact on the bigger picture and what the DNR will look like for generations to come.
"Involvement kind of inspires curiosity, right? So because we're out there doing these activities, we want to learn a little bit more about how we can protect our water, how we can participate and be good stewards of our waters and lands in Minnesota. And I think that's a very important part of this program."
"You don't really realize how awesome it is to be in Minnesota," Kohn adds, "and have the ability to go outside and enjoy the outdoors as much as we do."
For information on upcoming lunchtime webinars and an archive of past programs, check out the DNR's Outdoor Skills and Stewardship page.
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