Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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