Into the Woods

Conservation leaders battle "nature-deficit disorder."

Acadia National Park, Maine-Will today's children inherit the conservation ethic that created this beautiful national park and others like it across the country?

That question preoccupies the graying leadership of the National Park Service, the Forest Service and others concerned that American's appreciation of nature is on the wane.

Sheridan Steele, superintendent of Acadia here in down-East Maine, keeps close at hand a list of "compelling reasons" for concern. One reason: today's youth, ages 8 to 18, spend six and a half hours a day with electronic media. Another: Visits to the parks have declined considerably since their peak in the 1990s.

Interior Department officials starting with Secretary Dirk Kempthorne have been working to engage more citizens with the parks and to promote the idea that connecting to nature is important for all. At Interior headquarters, conservation official Olivia Barton Ferriter says, "We are very cognizant that we cannot take for granted that Americans will continue to love these places. We must teach the new generation."

In 2007, the Forest Service began the More Kids in the Woods program to fund local efforts to get children outdoors. Agencies also are working to reach children directly in their homes. A kid can become a "Web ranger" by completing a learning program on the National Park Service site, earning a handsome patch. "Paradoxically, to get children outdoors, we must reach them indoors," Kempthorne says.

To engage adults who can teach the younger generation, agencies have sought more volunteers, and there has been a gradual rise, according to Charles W. Mayo, program manager of Interior's interpretation and education division, who oversees the parks volunteer program. In 2007, 167,000 people contributed 5.4 million hours of time at parks nationwide, he says.

At Acadia, the volunteer program is run by coordinator Jonathan S. Gormley. Three times a week, he meets with drop-in volunteers, who show up for a half-day's work. One Tuesday in July, nearly all of the two dozen volunteers were senior citizens in retirement or on vacation. They're just a few of the 3,000 or so volunteers who donated 45,308 hours here last year.

Conservation agency leaders, worried most about today's youth, have eagerly embraced author Richard Louv and his theory that children need to be saved from "nature-deficit disorder." Louv's Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2008) is the bible of a back-to-nature movement to "leave no child inside." State initiatives bear that name, as does legislation pending in Congress to increase funding of environmental education. Louv's "disorder" is associated with familiar problems: Kids are overweight; single-parent and two-earner households don't allow their kids to roam unattended; a majority of kids own cell phones and have televisions in their bedrooms. Louv argues that the absence of nature in children's lives actually causes obesity, attention disorders and depression.

Steele observes that he and many others learned about camping, fishing, hiking at a young age. Today's adults don't embrace these activities as readily as their parents did, he notes, adding, "Children are not focused on the outdoors, but on Britney Spears, where she was last night, and all that kind of junk."

Steele calls for ramping up youth programs. On the Schoodic Peninsula, the park is creating an education and research center, with overnight accommodations for 125 people. A teacher training program was under way when I visited recently, and students now are rotating through. Steele would like every school child in Maine to have an experience with Acadia, he says.

In the short term, Park leaders anticipate that a six-part documentary, The National Parks, by acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, could generate a surge of visitors after it airs in 2009-again hoping that indoor viewing will translate to outdoors action.

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