By Larry Richardson, SGI Advisory Board and former Ducks Unlimited employee
I just hiked to the top of Ol’ Smoky…Mt. LeConte, the second highest point in Tennessee, a successful test for my new hip. I have made that trip many times in the last fifty years, BUT would I have done this if I had been given a cellphone at the age of two? Or if I had stayed on social media all day? Or, if I had never ventured off the pavement?
I grew up in a small country town. My friends and I walked the woods, hunted the fields, fished the creeks and attended summer camp on Kentucky Lake, earning some highly coveted, hard-to-get badges for outdoor skills. I have continued to passionately participate in outdoors activities throughout adulthood.
From street smart to bear smart
One summer during my college years, I worked for an organization based in New York City, to the disparagement of my parents who feared I would not survive. We took several busloads of underprivileged teenage boys up to a camp in the Catskill Mountains for a week and taught them outdoor skills. They were adept at city life and all were “street smart,” but outside of Central Park, most of them had never been off pavement. Drop them off in the woods and they clung to you as if bears were going to jump out of every bush.
By the end of each week, I was amazed at how easily they would roam about, actually wanting to be outside after having assimilated the information the camp provided. This experience, heartily approved by their parents, no doubt changed their outlook on life and made them more aware of their natural environment. Oh, I forgot to say that these kids lived in Hell’s Kitchen, near the part of Harlem where West Side Story was set.
What habitat conservation organizations know . . .
My full-time career at Ducks Unlimited has ended. DU’s focus is on wetlands and is supported by over a million outdoorsmen/women, many who are hunters, but not all. They do wonderful work to restore and maintain wetlands in North America from Mexico to Canada. DU and their sister organizations like National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Pheasants Forever, and Trout Unlimited also realize that without youth joining their ranks, their mission would be sorely hindered. Youth outdoor education has become a concerted effort for these groups as well as other conservation-related organizations, who see dwindling numbers pursuing outdoor sports and hobbies.
Since retirement, I have expanded my love of the outdoors to painting landscapes. I have one big problem…I can’t finish the painting fast enough! It takes days and weeks and sometimes months. That’s the feeling I have about a new project in Montgomery County, TN to which I have lent support, the Wade Bourne Nature Center. It can’t be built fast enough. Why? Because its mission is to promote outdoor awareness through interactive exhibits and a hands-on introduction to its natural surroundings. Mostly children, but adults too, will learn about the value of the woods, waters, and yes, about prairies, just a few steps away…outside.
A passion for the outdoors and its inherit value is prerequisite to the success of all the organizations I have mentioned. I firmly believe that leaders of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative have a passion for their vocation in the environmental sciences. They are role models, too, for much-needed volunteers. Without this cadre of supporters, most environmental organizations will fail.
The prescience of Aldo Leopold’s future vision
Not only are we charged with teaching the skills of taxonomy, land stewardship and to some extent, outdoor skills, but we must instill a passion for prairies. As Aldo Leopold often coached his conservation disciples, “There is a value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota.” He goes on, “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.”
He wrote that in 1949 in his A Sand County Almanac, way before the advent of the internet and cellphones. Even back then, he could see that we were moving away from our agrarian influence, thus losing our connection to the great outdoors.
Introducing young people, along with their parents, to the outdoors through fun, interactive, educational activities can win them over for life….an outdoor life. A passion for prairies must be worn on every shirt sleeve and expressed in every hand shake. Spread the word…recruit, recruit!
Banner photo: Kids who experience the outdoors early are likely to make it a lifetime passion.