About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This last Wednesday, local history staffers attended a public input meeting at the University of Minnesota on America’s Great Outdoors. This is a national initiative looking at the legacy of places, one part of which are historic.

The idea of the meeting was introduced with a short film that recalled President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1908 call to action to preserve natural and historic areas. History is a wonderful teacher, but critical context was missing.

One of the most frequently noted challenges to preserving parks, trails, and historic sites by attendees was essentially the lack of legibility of these places by the public. Often people said something to the effect of “How do we get them to know more about these places?”

The one part of the context of Pres. Roosevelt’s was that demographically more than half of the United States population lived in rural areas. Today less than 20 percent live in rural areas. In 1908 Montana and North Dakota were still open to homesteading. Today, only Maine, Mississippi, Vermont, and West Virginia have over half of their populations living in rural areas.

One thing that is happening to help urban populations access the great outdoors is creation of trails, parks, greenways, and other amenities in cities. But that does not solve the issues of “getting them to come out” to established amenities.

Could it be that to save outdoor heritage people need to be familiar with it? Could it be that in order to be familiar with something people need to live near it?

After sitting through the listening sessions on Wednesday, I certainly think that one part of solving this issue is to find ways for people to relocate to rural communities. That means helping people see the attraction of rural communities, helping them access cultural experiences more easily, and improving rural economies.

The depopulation that is occurring in western Minnesota counties is alarming and is perhaps the canary in the heritage mine calling us to action. Without addressing depopulation in rural areas the whole question of sustainability rises for beautiful but remote attractions. On the one hand, some people may argue that these are tools, and as needs for tools change society should trade in old amenities for ones it might actually use. On the other hand, part of the integrity of history is bound up in location, setting, feeling, and associations so we should not abandon history for the sake of convenience – but instead seek it out.

What are your thoughts? How much of an issue is depopulation in rural parts of Minnesota for the preservation of history? What can local history organizations do to encourage people to stay in their communities?

Feel free to also submit your thoughts to the federal government as it considers the next steps in preserving America’s Great Outdoors.

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