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Connecting More Americans to the Outdoors
Associate Forest Service Chief Sally Collins
Partners Outdoors
Lake Arrowhead, CA — January 7, 2007

It's a privilege to be here today together with Charles Jordan and the others on this panel. Thanks, Charles, for such an impressive talk! Your remarks were both inspiring and informative, and they go directly to an issue that we are dealing with at the Forest Service as well — how to connect more Americans to the outdoors. This has actually become a strategic concern for the Forest Service, and I'm glad to have the chance to tell you about it. First, some background.

Disconnect from Nature

In 2005, the Forest Service celebrated our hundredth anniversary. We hosted a Centennial Congress in Washington, DC, to commemorate the first American Forest Congress in 1905. To help prepare for the congress, we held a series of regional forums with partners from around the country. Thanks to Derrick and the American Recreation Coalition for their outstanding help and support of these forums!

At both the forums and the Centennial Congress, we asked participants to discuss the challenges facing conservation in the 21st century. A major challenge that participants identified was the need to engage more Americans — particularly youth — in conservation. Participants noted a disconnect between the resources people need to live — resources like water, food, and wood — and their understanding of where these resources come from. We heard stories, for example, about college students who were surprised to learn that wood actually comes from trees.

For many of us, we first heard of Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods at the Cooperative Conservation Conference in St. Louis in 2005. Since then, almost all of us have read the book, quoted the author, and credited him with clarifying what most of us already knew intuitively. Unlike most of us, who freely wandered in neighborhood natural areas, kids today have less unstructured outdoor play. Thereís the "stranger danger" phenomenon; there are fewer natural places to go for unstructured play; and thereís the fixation on the electronic world. These kids today — mine included — relate to nature differently than we did.

Even more disturbing, they lack a visceral connection between the natural world and what they get from it — like drinking water. Several trends make this disconnect more challenging:

  • Loss of open space, both in cities and in natural areas.
  • More people living in urban areas, who donít encounter the natural world on a daily basis.
  • Changing family structures — more single heads of households and more alternative living arrangements, making it less common or less possible to find "family time" in nature. At home and away, single parents have to work a lot!
  • Ever more intoxicating technologies, like iPods, webcasting, cells, blogs, etc. And with that new technology come new and different ways of people interacting with each other.
  • Finally, the "fast-food nation" phenomenon and the whole range of associated health issues — like obesity in youth and less interest in or capacity for physical activities.

This is no small thing, this disconnect from nature. And the consequences are huge:

  • Maybe the biggest concern is this: Who will protect our critical natural resources — watersheds, wildlife habitat, and pristine open spaces — if people donít know what they are worth until theyíre gone? They are disappearing fast.
  • Another huge concern is for mental and physical health due to missed opportunities for physical activity outdoors and for the emotional restoration that comes from nature. The Forest Service has supported research showing, for example, that greenery near urban homes can reduce crime and relieve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children.

New Partnership Opportunities

Unfortunately, generational differences in how we relate to nature are not something we can easily change. We arenít social engineers; we canít turn back the clock to a more pastoral time or reconfigure family structures. Nor do we necessarily want to.

I think that every challenge brings enormous opportunities — if we expand our thinking and extend our relationships beyond what weíve known in the past while still drawing on what we do know.

  • First, we clearly need to get more kids into the woods. If we want to build conservation leaders, we have to cultivate them early. In recent years, the national forests have had more than 30 million visits per year from kids under the age of 16, and thatís good news.
  • Second, we need to broaden the circle of conservation to include the ever-growing urban minority communities. We need to bring nature to these children on their own terms, in their own homes, involving their own families in different ways than weíve done before.
  • Third, all of this means building new partnerships. We have some spectacular examples — the Student Conservation Association, the Youth Conservation Corps, Wonderful Outdoor World, the Junior Forest Ranger Program, Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl, the Hands-on-Lands network of outdoor classrooms, and so on. These programs must continue to grow; through them, the Forest Service reached about 4.4 million students and educators in fiscal year 2006, and thatís good news, too.

But frankly, everyone from Walmart to the YMCA is trying hard to reach the population of the future — and all are finding it challenging. I think this is one area where we can learn together and accomplish great things by building alliances with the education, public health, and even criminal and public justice systems across the country. We can also build coalitions with corporate America, which is ever more conscious of "going green," of social responsibility, and of the changing demographics in our country. In our most recent strategic plan revision, the Forest Service has made connecting with urban populations a new goal — only one of six at the national level. That is how focused we are going to have to be.

It is with all of this in mind that I am pleased to present a new program we recently launched called More Kids in the Woods. It gives out matching funds for projects that connect kids to nature, specifically urban youth, and it encourages creativity and new partnerships. The first round of awards will be announced this spring at a special event with Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods.

And following up on our Centennial Congress, we will be holding a series of forums cohosted by the American Recreation Coalition and the National Forest Foundation. They will be held in March and April of this year and will focus on a couple of key questions:

  • How can we protect and improve access to national forest land?
  • How can we make national forests more relevant to youth and urban Americans?

I hope that, through these forums, we can explore more broad-based partnership opportunities as well.

Commitment to Recreation

All of these things Iíve talked about — from connecting various populations to nature, to our More Kids in the Woods pilot program, to this springís series of recreation forums, to the goals in our strategic plan — all of these things reflect a strong commitment on the part of the U.S. Forest Service to outdoor recreation. We recognize and celebrate the benefits that come from outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands — benefits to individuals in the form of physical health and mental well-being, benefits to families that bond and grow through shared experiences, and benefits to communities that get a higher quality of life for their residents and positive economic returns from recreation and tourism.

We are facing tough budgetary times in our country for obvious reasons, mostly having to do with 9/11 and its aftermath. Many domestic programs are affected, including our recreation program. We are looking hard for the most effective means of utilizing our funds, reducing impacts on natural resources, diversifying our funding sources, and building new partnerships. None of this should be interpreted as retrenchment or retreat from providing outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands. I look at it as strategic repositioning. We are laying the groundwork for meeting contemporary demands, expanding recreation opportunities and benefits into the future, and shifting our program to meet the needs of the ever more diverse and technologically unique generations to come.

Conservation Working for People

One of the joys of my job is the perspective I gain from global travel — and since most global conservation challenges are in Third World countries, I have come to appreciate the country we live in ways I had not thought of before. We are truly blessed with a strong national framework for conservation, with robust laws protecting our natural resources, and with financial commitments for doing so that much of the rest of the world cannot even begin to dream of.

As we all know, the greatest cause of deforestation worldwide and the attending loss of biodiversity is agriculture and fuelwood, much of it just to sustain life in areas of great poverty. What I have taken from those experiences is an understanding that for people to support conservation, conservation has to support people, sometimes at a very basic level.

Our challenge is to understand how conservation can work for people now and into the future and to build incentives to promote that. Our partnerships, like those we will build through programs like More Kids in the Woods, will reach into untapped sectors of our society — like zoos, for example, which also reach out to urban kids through their families, or like the criminal justice system, which has a stake in keeping kids involved in healthy outdoor activities rather than crime. And in doing so, we will build a strong and broad base for conservation in the future.

Some of it is just doing more of what we are already doing — some is inventing something completely new — all with the goal of expanding support for conservation in the next hundred years. For me, it is really about instilling future generations with a love of and appreciation for the natural world.

Let me end by saying thanks to each of you — because I know you are here for precisely that reason and have dedicated so much of your personal and professional lives to this cause. I really believe that it is people like us who care a lot, and who engage others to equally care, who will make this possible.

US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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