Menus Subscribe Search

Honorable Ambassador From Nature-Land

• January 09, 2009 • 6:00 PM

Park professionals are searching for ways to reintroduce Americans to the great outdoors.

It’s not easy being a park ranger these days. Park visitation has declined, and those who do visit parks are apt to be less comfortable in nature and possess fewer outdoors skills than visitors of 10 or 20 years ago. Today’s rangers must cope with an increasing number of kids who would rather be on MySpace than in green space and with adults who demand cell phone coverage in the wilderness but no longer answer the call of the wild.

Emilyn Sheffield, a consultant to the National Park Service, sifts through numerous studies in her effort to find ways parks can reach out to the many visitors out of synch with the natural world. The professor of recreation and parks management at California State University, Chico believes that “many park professionals have become frustrated and some even vaguely disdainful of the increasing numbers of visitors disconnected from nature.”

One of her (slightly tongue-in-cheek) suggestions to park staff: Act as if you are ambassadors from a foreign country when interacting with the estranged-from-the-land public. Pretend you are diplomats from Nature-Land, really a very friendly country once you get to know it.

The National Park Service, as well as state and regional park agencies across North America, are formulating responses, both philosophic and practical, to two clusters of studies. One substantial body of research has tracked the steady decline of park visitation over the past two decades. Another, more recent set of studies, has attempted to determine why increasing numbers of visitors are uncomfortable with, even alienated from, the great outdoors.

The National Park Service has recorded declines in total visitors every year since 1998, and a decline in per-capita visits to parklands since 1988. In addition, there has been a steady decline of all aspects of park visitation — from picnicking to camping to hiking. And surveys reveal even as they grow in terms of percentage of the overall population, minorities tend to be underrepresented in park visitation.

Research suggests Americans of all ages, particularly children, are replacing outdoor activities with indoor ones. A recent study sponsored by The Nature Conservancy identified rampant “videophilia” — love of TV, computers and devices of all sorts with electronic screens — as a cause of obesity, poor social skills, various attention disorders and poor academic performance.

Oliver Pergams, professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Patricia Zaradic, a fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program, Delaware Valley in Bryn Mawr, Pa., declared in a 2008 study that this decline in park visitation correlated strongly with a rise in playing video games, surfing the Internet and watching movies.

Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day with electronic media. While the scientists are quick to point out that they’ve found a correlation — not a causal relationship — between time spent in the wired world and time spent in the natural world, nature lovers can’t help pointing an accusing finger at this shift to sedentary electronic diversions.

Add REI, the large outdoors equipment retailer, to the list of park agencies, conservation groups and academics concerned about declining outdoors use. Fewer campers, paddlers, cyclists and hikers translates to fewer folks purchasing gear to pursue those activities.

A nature-oriented corporate culture combined with enlightened self-interest prompted REI to commission a study to find out why Americans are reluctant to go outdoors — and why they resist outdoors recreation. REI’s study revealed:

  1. They don’t know where to go.
  2. They don’t know how to go. (They lack outdoor skills and training.)
  3. They don’t have anyone to go with.
  4. They’re too preoccupied with other (urban) activities.

As careerists go, park professionals tend to be an upbeat and optimistic group and most will say that where there is a problem, there is a solution and where there is a challenge, there is an opportunity. They see the challenge of connecting those alienated from nature as an opportunity to inspire them to enjoy the great outdoors as much as they do.

Now that park officials and recreation experts are aware of some of the reasons why the public is disinterested — or at least, less interested — in the natural world than generations past, they’re moving quickly: helping outdoors newbies and wannabes by educating them about what is often a remarkable diversity of outdoors experiences within reach; launching programs to teach outdoors skills; and directing them to clubs and organizations that offer the pleasure of company in the great outdoors.

Has nature really become a foreign country to millions of Americans?

Undoubtedly, by all recent measurements, it has.

But perhaps not to the baby boomers: more than 75 million Americans, a generation deeply committed to the environment and one in possession of a substantial body of outdoors knowledge. Park professionals are counting on the boomers, now moving into their prime giving years and who have the time, talent and treasure to get younger generations back on the nature trail.

“I’m an optimistic,” Sheffield declared. “We’ve got wonderful parks; we have top park professionals; and we’ve got people who at heart love the land. Now that we have some idea about why people are disconnected to nature, we can find ways to reconnect them.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

John McKinney
John McKinney is the author of 20 books about hiking, parklands and nature including "The Hiker's Way" and "A Walk Along Land's End: California on the Edge." After a long stint as the Los Angeles Times hiking columnist, John (aka The Trailmaster) now writes articles and commentaries about nature and outdoor recreation for magazines and online.

More From John McKinney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.