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Curing Society's Disconnect With Nature Could Be As Easy As A Walk In the Woods


Could building more lovers of the outdoors be as simple as taking a walk in the woods? NPT file photo of Great Smoky Mountains National Park trail.

For the past four years, since Last Child in the Woods hit bookstores, there has been a greatly heightened concern over how society connects with nature. Across the United States there has been hew and cry from many corners that society is losing not just its comfort in the outdoors, but also its concern for it. A new study indicates that while there should be reason for concern, perhaps the solution is as easy as a walk in the woods.

The National Park Service has responded to the collective worry about nature's role in society, in part, by reaching out electronically to younger generations with podcasts, videocasts, and electronic rangers. But the latest Outdoor Recreation Participation Report from the Outdoor Foundation indicates that simply taking youngsters on a hike or, as they've done recently at Colorado National Monument, a camp-out with campfire songs and s'mores, might be more important to developing a lifetime love for the outdoors.

Of course, that's often easier said as time and distance can pose formidable barriers to get out into nature. Among the age groups 6-12, 13-17 and 18-24, those citing a lack of time to get outdoors constituted 24 percent, 38 percent, and 58 percent, respectively, of those surveyed. Being too far away was cited by 16 percent, 10 percent, and 10 percent, respectively, of those surveyed.

Despite the tsunami of Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media portals, as well as the plethora of electronic gaming options, in recent years, an interesting trend has been identified during the country's recent economic turmoil -- the simpler life is an enjoyable one. Visits to national parks across the country were up -- substantially in some cases -- this year, and so were some forms of camping.

“In today’s economy, people are returning to simpler lifestyles — the ‘less is more’ ethic,” Christine Fanning, executive director of The Outdoor Foundation, says in the study's opening pages. "Historically, economic downturns have resulted in increased participation in outdoor recreation. Nature-based activities provide fun, affordable recreation and vacation opportunities for individuals and families. In the resurgence of several core outdoor activities in 2008, we hopefully see Americans beginning to reconnect with nature."

Reconnecting with nature. That was the key message that Richard Louv worked to drive home in his book, Last Child in the Woods. While he wrote an entire book on Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, the salient point, if you accept the Outdoor Foundation's findings, could be summed up in the following passage from Mr. Louv's book:

"Urban children, and many suburban children, have long been isolated from the natural world because of the lack of neighborhood parks, or lack of opportunity -- lack of time and money for parents who might otherwise take them out of the city. But the new technology accelerates the phenomenon," wrote Mr. Louv, who then proceeded to quote from Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst.

"'What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life,' says Daniel Yankelovich, the veteran public opinion analyst. This faith, he says, transcends mere love for new machines. 'It's a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional.'"

A glance through the Outdoor Foundation's findings provides a measure of hope that if youngsters are introduced to the outdoors, they will return to them later in life. Now, the methodology used to compile the survey results, while encompassing 41,500 on-line interviews, is new, so we don't have a long list of years to detect strong trends. But the data that are presented offer optimism that if there is a nature deficit in society, a good portion of it can be traced to economics and time away at college or finding one's place in life, not entirely a rejection of nature.

Consider the following:

From 2007 to 2008, among the 6-to-17 age group, there was a nearly 16 percent increase in backpackers; an 11.9 percent boost in BMX bikers, and a 17 percent jump in mountain bikers. But when you turn to the young adult group, those aged 18-to-24, there was a 10.2 percent drop in backpacking, a 24.1 percent drop in mountain biking; and a 23.5 percent drop in climbing (ice/mountaineering).

Ann Obenchain, vice president of marketing and member services for the Outdoor Industry Association, says there's good evidence that the drop-off among young adults is a direct result of leaving home and heading out into the world.

“What we see happens is when they get to that age they either are going to college or they have lost their mentor group, such as outdoor clubs or parents, that have been taking them outdoors, or there have been other time challenges," said Ms. Obenchain. "So it’s definitely a group that we’re looking at as how do we keep them engaged in the outdoors moving forward."

If there's optimism to be found in the report it is that those individuals who got to know nature as children returned after college or once they settled down, when they were better able to afford some of the activities and could make time for them, she added.

“I think most of those (category) boosts are happening at the age 25-and-above. Some of our most affluent generations are in the 25-and above categories, so they’ve got disposable incomes, or they’re new families and buying equipment and choosing to make the outdoors part of their vacationing activity." said Ms. Obenchain. “The key, too, is if they’ve developed a strong affinity to the outdoors and these activities in the ages of 6-12 and 13-17, the chances of them returning to those activities as an adult later in life are much higher. So I think that’s where we really need to make sure we’re instilling that love for the outdoors at that age.”

Indeed, if you look at the results for the 25-to-44 age group, they show a robust return to nature:

* There was a 30 percent increase among backpackers from 2007 to 2008

* There was an 11.9 percent increase among mountain bikers

* There was an 11 percent increase in hikers

* There was a 32.3 percent increase in sport climbers, and a 31.8 percent increase in traditional climbers

* There was a 14.6 percent increase in sea kayaking, and a 30.7 percent increase in rafting

* There was a 34 percent increase in snowshoeing, a 33.2 percent increase in trail running, and a 35.9 percent increase in telemark skiing

As encouraging as those numbers might seem, the report paints a disconcerting picture in terms of race and the outdoors, one that needs to be addressed to ensure advocates for nature in the decades ahead.

Participation in outdoor activities is higher among Caucasians than any other ethnicity and lowest among African Americans in nearly all age groups. Research by The Outdoor Foundation finds that most outdoor enthusiasts are introduced to the outdoors before age 18. For many ethnicities, fewer youth are introduced to the outdoors, and the impact of this is visible in participation levels among all age groups. The barriers to participation or increased participation in outdoor recreation cited by younger minorities are similar to those cited by all youth in many ways. But there are important differences noted in the 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report. Diverse youth participants, for example, cite school work as the top reason they don’t get out more often — a barrier they cite more prominently than Caucasian youth.

Additionally, Hispanic participants and non-participants alike cite a lack of access to nearby places to participate in outdoor activities as a barrier to participation more often than other ethnicities.

As the United States becomes a majority minority population, participation in outdoor activities among diverse groups is becoming increasingly important to future generations of outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists. Understanding the extent and quality of participation and non-participation among the largest ethnicities in the US is critical to reaching these underrepresented groups.

Is there a long-term solution, one that can keep growing outdoor enthusiasts? It could be as simple as taking a hike in the woods.

“I think everything plays a role. Each piece. It’s like a deck of cards. Each activity you add you help build that deck," said Ms. Obenchain. "One program isn’t going to work for all. There have been some incredible grassroots movements around the country that have been developed regionally, and in communities that are tailored to the unique needs of those specific communities, and I think that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take that community groundswell to really get everybody outside and active.”

Attached to this post is the Topline Report that carries the barebones numbers produced by the survey. You can find a pdf of the entire report at this site: Check it out, as it's rich in data to both help understand our connection, or lack thereof, with nature, as well as keys to restoring and strengthening that connection.

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Gee, am I the first person to comment on this topic?

I have to agree with this comment that the article quotes: " ' "What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life," says Daniel Yankelovich, the veteran public opinion analyst. This faith, he says, transcends mere love for new machines. "It's a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional." ' " I see evidence of this lifestyle among all types of people except the very elderly. Entire cities, moreover, seem to be giving over to a peculiarly artificial way of life. Las Vegas, the bane of James Howard Kunstler, comes first to mind, but now there's also Macau and Dubai.

Still, I've doubted the Sierra Club's method of reaching out to younger people to interest them in the outdoors. It and similar-minded groups seem to think it's good to take them on hikes. I have to wonder if that doesn't bore them and if they wouldn't prefer something like skateboarding, BMX biking, or mountain biking—none of which the Sierra Club is likely to embrace; in fact its institutional attitude toward mountain biking comes across as stiff and reserved.

Although I applaud the article's optimistic tone and hope the trends it describes do materialize, I would be reluctant to draw firm conclusions from those statistics the article lists that are based on a one-year trend, from 2007 to 2008. I just read another study that said the two most traditional outdoor activities—hiking and backpacking—are increasingly confined to a narrow demographic group and are broadly in decline. Oliver Pergams and Patricia Zaradic, whose work has appeared in National Park Traveler discussions before, and a colleague of theirs have issued an academic study stating, "The most recent data show a decline in hiking/backpacking popularity since 1998–2000." See; and see also /2009/10/forest-service-drawing-line-mountain-bikers-potential-wilderness-national-park-service-agrees4742 (blog post describing the study more thoroughly).

On a personal note (Kurt and others have heard me say this before) I am continually struck by the lack of human presence of any kind in the wildlands I visit. That is true even of the regional and county parks in the crowded Bay Area, which I think has about seven million people. Go two miles from any trailhead and seeing another person is an event. When I mountain bike in high-altitude Colorado, in Utah, and in Nevada, at the height of the short summer season, it is usually so quiet that I wonder how trails stay open. Occasionally they're not surviving; they're falling into semiabandonment from lack of use. (The Monarch Crest Trail outside of Salida, Colo., is the big exception on summer weekends. It is crowded with mountain bikers and the occasional offroad motorcyclist.)

Let me conclude on a positive note. The article alludes to a lack of nonwhite, nonaffluent interest in America's wildlands. The Pergams-Zaradic report also talks about this. Alum Rock Park is located in east San Jose, near where I live. Parts of it have a remote feel to them and there are several miles of singletrack trails, some multiuse, some closed to mountain biking, and some closed to horseback-riding. The park is popular with Latino families. Given the area's demographics, it's likely that many of those families are low-income. Yet one sees kids roaming around on foot and on cheap ersatz mountain bikes and BMX bikes. Something is working there. The park combines its rugged trail system with a number of picnic areas and ample parking. That may be a formula that will work to develop interest in wildland parks among a wider range of people.

I'll throw in my 2 cents. Time is always in short supply. Kids have plenty of homework and other activities that keep them busy. Parents often are overworked. In those conditions, finding time to travel to a far away park is not easy. Taking my kids for a ride at the local park competes with the Xbox 360... Yet, they always enjoy it once we go out and spend an hour riding or hiking around.

I'm not optimistic that the long term trend will see more people going out and enjoying nature, although I hope to be wrong.

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