Photo of Leo McAvoy riding horseback on a grassy landscape,Leo McAvoy led the way on a ranch ride near Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana.

Everybody outside!

Inspiring leader opens the door to parks and recreation

Minnesota is not only the Land of 10,000 Lakes but the birthplace of a very special group of alumni who call themselves “McAvites” after Leo McAvoy, PhD ’76. McAvoy is a world-renowned scholar of outdoor recreation planning and policy and a beloved U professor emeritus of kinesiology.

Like their mentor, McAvites are outdoor enthusiasts who now live and work far and wide. Last July, a number of them outside the state traveled back to Minnesota to celebrate with McAvoy and his family when he received the University’s Outstanding Achievement Award, its highest award to alumni. In fact, they camped in his backyard.

A few weeks later, McAvoy and his wife Katie were at the Superior Hiking Trail campsite they volunteer to maintain.

Professor Emeritus Leo McAvoy
Professor Emeritus Leo McAvoy

The field of parks and recreation has changed since McAvoy transitioned from graduate student in recreation, park, and leisure studies to faculty member in 1976. Increased use of technology, growth of urban areas, and concern about children’s safety has increased the need to promote open space and interaction with the environment.

At the same time, you can find outdoor recreation programs in settings beyond city and state parks. School districts incorporate activities like cross-country skiing in their physical education programs. Adventure travel is a growing sector of tourism. Retail stores like REI Co-op sponsor outings. McAvoy’s work played a role in these trends because of his dedication to ensuring all populations have access to, and appreciate, the multitude of benefits wilderness offers.

McAvoy’s focus on inclusive recreation stands out. His groundbreaking research challenged long-held myths about the preferences of individuals with disabilities for outdoor environments and the extent of their ability to participate in adventure activities. He collaborated with community groups like Wilderness Inquiry to develop strategies and set legislation to ensure the outdoors were wholly accessible—not just by paving a single trail.

Another area of McAvoy’s work yielded vital insight and guidance for balancing public land regulation with American Indian culture. While a federal entity like the National Park Service may be charged with managing land adjacent to American Indian reservations, the land often originally belonged to the tribe, and members value it for cultural and recreational purposes. McAvoy partnered with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, among other tribes, to study how they used protected areas close to their reservation and how best to collaborate with external agencies on use policies.

In the classroom, McAvoy’s commitment to intense field training made him a memorable professor. Engaging his students in hands-on learning put a “gleam in his eyes,” according to a frequent co-investigator, Dan Dustin. McAvoy’s students learned technical skills on backpacking trips to Montana and how to build a snow house in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They went on to become accomplished professionals in a variety of organizations that organize and teach outdoor activities. Many now lead groups to the same spots they visited with McAvoy.

Thanks to McAvoy’s legacy, they continue to make sure that everyone can enjoy Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes—and the outdoors far beyond.

Learn more about the School of Kinesiology.

Story by Ann Dingman | Photos by M. Deborah Bialeschki and Jayme Halbritter | Winter 2018