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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.”

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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.

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