In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are taking advantage of Wisconsin’s outdoors more than ever.
With 49 state parks, 15 state forests, 44 state trails, 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, and about 15,000 lakes, residents and visitors have bountiful opportunities to try something new.
“Wisconsin’s outdoors have been essential to people in giving them an outlet that chance to get outside, a chance to relax, a chance to enjoy the natural resources we have,” Fish, Wildlife and Parks Division Administrator Keith Warnke said. “It’s also a chance to try it out if they hadn’t tried before. There are a lot of great opportunities out there that people are discovering.”
Since COVID-19 began impacting people’s lives in mid-March, visits to Wisconsin State Parks totaled more than 6.4 million, according to the Wisconsin DNR. Weekend attendance on May 16-17 was up more than 44% compared to the previous year and that percentage continued to rise to 52% by June 13-14 as camping reopened on state properties.
The DNR also recorded an uptick in camping reservations with 73% of campsites reserved July 1 to July 31 in 2020 compared to 62% in the same period in 2019. Since camping re-opened June 10, campers have utilized a total of 203,296 site nights (number of campsites x nights reserved).
“Our park staff are phenomenal,” Warnke said. “They’ve done a great job of maintaining the conditions at the park, maintaining safety at the park, greeting visitors, providing visitor services, providing clean campgrounds. We re-allocated some staff resources to help out in some of the bigger state parks. There’s just been a lot of use, but it’s something that we saw coming early on, and we were able to adapt. It’s been a learning experience for sure, but so far, it’s been a really good year.”
Warnke recommended those interested in exploring to find a new state park but reminded visitors to maintain social distancing and to wear masks, even when outside.
“My mask protects you, and your mask protects me,” Warnke said. “There’s a lot of very busy state parks to be sure, but there’s a lot of underutilized state parks and forests that people can find time alone or time away from the crowds. There are also a lot of different trails to explore.”
One of the most eye-opening trends for Warnke was the increased interest in fishing. So far in 2020, 1.4 million individuals have purchased fishing licenses, a 14% increase over the same time frame in 2019, according to the DNR.
“We’re going to try to see if that holds and if a new generation of young anglers is going to continue fishing in Wisconsin,” Warnke said.
Turkey licenses also reached a 3-year-high with more than 400,000 licenses issued, a 10% increase over spring 2019 numbers. Preliminary totals show Wisconsin turkey hunters registered 44,963 birds during the 2020 spring turkey hunting season, nearly a 17% increase from the 38,576 birds registered in the 2019 spring season. The 2020 youth season resulted in a total of 2,880 birds registered, up 47% from 1,953 in 2019. Harvest increased significantly across all zones and time periods compared to 2019 levels.
The economic impact of outdoor recreation in Wisconsin adds to an estimated $7.8 billion boost to the state’s GDP and supports more than 93,000 jobs according to the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
TravelWisconsin.com, the Department of Tourism’s premiere state travel website has seen percent increases in the triple digits of people searching for great trails, hikes, and waterfalls.
Visitors to state parks are asked to check the DNR’s website for park capacity updates, changes to access, and current health and safety precautions.