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Secretary Jewell Targets Nature Deficit Disorder

Twenty-first Century Conservation Corps gets off the ground

I’ll admit that in the grand scheme of Washington politics, the news yesterday out of the Department of the Interior isn’t exactly earthshaking. During a news conference at the FDR Memorial in DC, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that retailer American Eagle Outfitters will contribute $1 million to her effort to create a “Twenty-first Century Conservation Corps” that will, as a DOI press release explains, “put America’s youth and veterans to work protecting, restoring, and enhancing America’s natural and cultural resources.”

photo of children and a woman looking at grass seeds outdoorsphoto by Tina Shaw / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on FlickrSecretary Sally Jewell helped Minneapolis second graders collect native prairie seeds
during her visit to Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Maybe it’s not as headline generating as the Chris Christie contretemps, but for people who care about the environment, it’s the start of something potentially big. Here’s why.

The environmental movement faces a serious challenge. More people are more disconnected from natural systems than at any other time in the history of humanity. The reasons and evidence for this are so obvious that they hardly bear repeating. In short, most of us live in vast urban areas where the rhythms and patterns of wild nature are almost totally obscured. Nor do we have much interaction with what I would call “pastoral nature,” meaning agricultural landscapes. I think it’s fair to say that most Americans couldn’t tell a spruce from a hemlock, or an adolescent cabbage from an adolescent beet. In our post-industrial world, such knowledge is superfluous. If all of your basic needs are met through the modern magic of fossil fuels and industrial farming, then it’s easy to ignore nonhuman nature, to forget that it even exists.       

There’s a name for this: Nature Deficit Disorder. According to journalist Richard Louv, this “disorder” is increasingly common among young children today, who have few, if any, opportunities for unsupervised play time in natural settings. Those kids will therefore have less of an appreciation for nature, whether of the wild or pastoral variety. Such ecological illiteracy isn’t limited to Americans. According to a study conducted last year, a quarter of Japanese university students do not know which direction the sun sets. (Spoiler: The answer is west.)

Society’s disconnection from the living system is a major hurdle for environmental advocacy. If you’ve never enjoyed the sublime experience of being in the wilderness and feeling immersed in the more-than-human, then you’ll have little interest in fighting for the conservation of wild lands. If you don’t know that your food comes from the living wilderness of the soil, you’ll have less of an appreciation for how our civilization depends on natural systems. Modern people’s alienation from nature poses a threat to the entire environmental agenda, from creating sustainable economies to protecting wildlife and wild places.

I know that Jewell gets all of this. When she was the CEO of outfitter REI, Jewell was a key player in the Children and Nature Network, a group founded by Louv with the aim of getting more kids into the outdoors. During a speech at the National Press Club last October outlining her agenda, Jewell closed with an impassioned call for “engaging the next generation in understanding and stewarding our public lands.” As she told the press club audience, “What happens when a generation who has little connection to our nation’s public lands is suddenly in charge of taking care of them?”

The challenge of the task is further complicated by optics. Tens of millions of Americans engage in outdoor nature activities annually. There are an estimated 47 million anglers in the US and about 42 million mountain bikers. Some 34 million hit the hiking trails every year. But, like it or not, activities such as hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, and fishing have a reputation for being something just for older white guys. (If you doubt this, check out a recent post by Brentin Mock over at Grist.) According to the most recent survey from the Outdoor Industry Association, youth participation in outdoor activities dropped between 2006 and 2009.

Jewell’s Twenty-first Century Conservation Corps aims to reverse that trend. If all goes according to plan, the corps will provide 100,000 young people with work and training opportunities in public land management over the next four years. Additionally, Jewell hopes to get 10 million students to take advantage of the educational opportunities in our public lands, “the nation’s best natural classrooms,” as she puts it. And she wants to enlist at least one million young volunteers in outdoor work such as trail building. If Jewell manages to hit even half of those marks during her tenure, it will be a significant success – and do much to polish her reputation among environmental groups.

Secretary Jewell’s relationship with environmentalists has been rocky so far. According to The Washington Post, at one of her first meeting with greens leaders she managed to get into an argument with Sierra Club chief Michael Brune over gas fracking. Nor does it look like the relationship will get smoother anytime soon. As Jewell, a former oil and gas engineer, makes decisions about fossil fuel extraction on public lands, she is bound to tick off many greens.

But she should be applauded for her outdoor engagement advocacy. I saw Jewell speak at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club last year (and I happened to have dinner with her once when she was still at REI) and it’s clear to me that she has a real passion for getting young people out on the trail. She feels the issue in her bones. It seems to me there’s a good chance that, looking back years from now, Sally Jewell’s legacy at Interior won’t be her decision on this gas lease or that renewable energy installation, but rather her accomplishments in introducing a new generation of people to the wonders of America’s wild places.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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As an avid environmentalist and mountain biker I must disagree with Treed Murray’s remarks.  Yes, some mountain bikers tear through the woods oblivious to what they are passing and unconcerned with the damage their speeding bikes can cause…but I think that most mtn.bikers are simply enjoying-like hikers, backpackers and fisherman-the pleasure of being out in the ‘wild’.  Outdoors people need to pull together, support and encourage one another’s activities, not ‘whining’ that one activity is more environmentally sensitive than another.  Heck, the BEST thing we can do to help the ‘great outdoors’ is for everyone to stay out.  Every footstep, every broken branch and ‘small yellow puddle’ is a mark on nature.  But that would be silly and unthinkable. Responsible stewardship in ALL aspects of outdoor recreation will always be needed.

By Paul Lewis on Thu, December 18, 2014 at 1:04 am

Contrary to popular belief, Wilderness is not created, it simply exists.  The federal government is on a mission to create national monuments and wilderness, providing the “playground” and “classroom” for our nations youth.  How thoughful of them.  Our current and past Senators have been reluctant to create any more wilderness areas.  Here’s why.  The wilderness is already there.  The existing federal lands have stewards that take care of those lands well under multiple-use management.  Mostly agricultural production, i.e., farming and ranching.  The public is allowed to visit these wild places already.  The playground and classroom is there for all to enjoy.  Why do we need the government to control the use?  Our children are already going to have an abnormally high burden of debt. And we want to add to that?  The children of today are disconnected from the world around them - that is mainly the fault of the parents, smartphones, and video games.  Parents need to encourage their children to get outside and see the world and teach them to be cautious when entering a wilderness area, because besides the beauty there are also dangers, i.e., snakes, wolves, mountain lions, etc.  The up and coming stewards (children of ranch and farm families) see what the governments mission is.  Wilderness designations on federal grazing allotments cripples operations.  Why would our youth want to farm or ranch if they cannot make a living the way their father’s before them did?  I would suggest Sally Jewel talk to some of the ranchers and see how they feel about having a local conservation corps coming out on the land they manage,blazing new trails. If President Obama is cavalier with his pen as Secretary Jewell promised, we will be importing our vegetables, grains, and meat from foreign countries and then our children will really be disconnected.

By Gary on Sun, January 26, 2014 at 3:16 pm

I believe that “nature deficit disorder” will continue to expand since most Americans have very little economic incentive to be involved in either woodlands or farmlands.  It is true there will always be those that are passionate about the “environment” and want to simply learn about it for intrinsic reasons.  But, for most individuals, a living must be made; traditionally this was by forestry or agriculture, bluestone quarrying, tanning, or milling.  Since economic freedom on private property has continued its downward slide and now receives plenty of competition from public land acquisition, more disconnect may be expected.  It mostly has to do with private property and how we treat that player.  There are plenty of young people that “want” to farm, but “can” they given this market which contains extreme price distortions, geographical discrimination (zoning), etc?

By Ryan Trapani on Thu, January 16, 2014 at 6:59 am

Wow Treed, miss the point much?

By Jesse on Mon, January 13, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Mountain biking doesn’t help young people learn to respect of nature (nor does it cure them of being nature-deficit.) Mountain bikers are out to conquer nature like any other dirt bikers or ORVs off-roading in our parks and wilderness. Mountain biking, like any other ORV, is simply anti-nature. Mountain biking adds nothing towards “protecting, restoring, and enhancing America’s natural and cultural resources.” Please don’t continue to lump it in with such activities like hiking, backpacking and fishing.

By Treed Murray on Thu, January 09, 2014 at 12:37 pm

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