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Kids in the Woods: Making the Connection

A speech before the Recreation Exchange, hosted by the American Recreation Coalition, Washington, DC.

By USDA Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbelle

"Today's children... will need full environmental literacy and a strong land ethic. It is our job collectively to see that they get both."

It's a pleasure to be here with partners, sister agencies and colleagues. Thank you, Derrick, for the warm introduction and for your friendship to the Forest Service. We appreciate everything the American Recreation Coalition has done to benefit America's forests. Thanks to the Recreation Exchange for this invitation.

I'm a native New Englander. As a youngster, I often trailed my father up onto the White Mountain National Forest— never dreaming that one day I would be Chief. All I knew was that I loved being in the forest. When it came time to choose a career, I chose one I thought would let me live my life in forests.

That turned out to be not quite the case. As Forest Service Chief, I am no longer in the forest as often as I'd like. But I am still of the forest. I am passionate about the future of forests and what we can do to sustain forests and strengthen the bond between citizens and nature. It's good to be with those who share my passion.

Today I will continue our conversation on how we can close the gap between nature and kids; I'll pitch ideas for future strategies and then touch on how programs— designed for youngsters— can lead to connections to other segments of the American public.

The Inception of Kids in the Woods

About a year ago, former Chief Dale Bosworth stood before this group. He spoke compellingly about troubling trends facing America's forests— specifically the growing chasm between America's youngsters and nature.

For many generations, children and nature have been linked. Children learned about their natural environment through their daily lives, as a part of their outdoor chores or their outdoor play. They were introduced to connections between natural resources and their homes, communities, and lifestyles. Many learned that forests provide clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, recreation opportunities, building materials— and jobs.

Today, nature plays a lesser role in many children's lives. A large segment of our technology-savvy population appears to be growing up estranged from nature in a way they never were before, and we're beginning to see alarming consequences. Outdoor activities among children are declining. Our iPod-listening, American-Idol-watching, X-box playing generation increasingly shows a propensity toward sedentary life, leading to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Some research shows that children deprived of emotional and psychological benefits of nature are more prone to depression and attention deficit disorders. It suggests that contact with nature actually relieves symptoms of attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity.

Moreover, we here in this room know that long-term detachment from nature tragically translates into a shaky future for sustainable forests and healthy public lands. Any plan to sustain healthy, productive ecosystems must ensure that people remain socially connected to them. We must nurture a new generation out of which conservation leaders can emerge. In our history, most conservation leaders made their connection to nature as kids. Without this early connection, we must wonder who will emerge as tomorrow's leaders and caretakers. It has become almost second nature for Americans to want to care for the land as part of caring for country and community— it's a basic civic duty. We must do all we can to ensure that this sense of responsibility remains interwoven in our social fabric.

The Forest Service holds a significant stake in this problem— and we are committed to exploring solutions, working alongside our partners and citizens. Last spring, we teamed up with the American Recreation Coalition and National Forest Foundation to take action. In a venture called Kids in the Woods, we invested a half million dollars in 26 cost share agreements with conservation education organizations and outdoor enthusiasts. They offered hands-on outdoor experiences to youngsters. This program sent a strong signal that raised public awareness about the challenges we faced as a nation with a strong conservation heritage.

Obviously, these challenges were serious concerns for the Forest Service, our partners, fellow public lands agencies, and conservation leaders. But when we launched Kids in the Woods, we found that a large segment of American citizens cared, too— particularly when we talked about it in terms of the future health and well-being of our children.

Success for Kids in the Woods

Just 24 hours after our announcement hit the newsrooms, nearly a hundred articles appeared in the national and regional newspapers across the country. A news editorial in a Pittsburgh paper endorsed Kids in the Woods— despite the fact that no one in Pennsylvania received any funding. You can google and still see news features and continuous coverage of Kids in the Woods and the difference it's making.

I have spent time in Washington and traveled around the country. As I have listened, I have been struck by the number of times people have expressed concern about the kind of future we are creating for our children and how well the next generation understands what is happening. Our children need to understand how much they depend on forests wherever they live. Children need to know how much pleasure there is to be had in forests— how much forests can contribute to their physical and spiritual well-being.

Kids in the Woods struck a resonant chord with adults— but I wondered about the kids. If the letter I read from a Houston teen, who flew to Montana this summer and spent two weeks on the Flathead National Forest, is any indication, we get a better than passing grade. Karen, a 15-year old, and 35 of her fellow students from two charter schools of inner city Houston participated in one of our Kids in the Woods programs in Montana. To participate, these students successfully competed for the opportunity to experience the Flathead National Forest. They learned about fire ecology, camped in the woods, and studied aquatics on Big Creek at the northern end of the Flathead River. For nearly all of these children, the two weeks at Big Creek served as their initiation to mountain forests.

From Karen's letter, Big Creek left an indelible imprint. She writes, "Personally, I am a big-city girl. But the experience at Big Creek has opened my eyes to realize that there is other beauty in life besides movies and shopping malls. Thank you for opening my eyes to the real and natural beauty of life— and Montana."

You think we made a difference?

For many of these teens, two weeks on the Flathead became "life changing" experiences. Program coordinator Maggie Douherty said the kids not only learned about nature, they discovered themselves.

Another successful project at the Harlem Link Charter School in New York City introduced students to nearby forests and wetlands. At Salish-Kootenai College in Polson, Montana, a math and science camp engaged tribal children in outdoor activities within the context of their traditional culture. Since launching the program, we have touched the lives of more than 25,000 children nationwide.

We've taken it a step further: National forests and grasslands have become even more motivated to work with local communities to engage more children in outdoor recreation. "Be Active Bitterroot" is an offshoot of the HealthierUS Initiative launched in 2002 to increase personal fitness. The Bitterroot National Forest, the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development Area, and other partners have capitalized on local interest in children's health issues to raise awareness of local recreation opportunities— and concern about the health of the forests surrounding communities in Montana.

It's evident Kids in the Woods invigorated and sparked new interest in nature, which offers exceptional benefits to our children. It has been an exciting few months for all of us. I'm grateful to you for your support.

What's next?

Our early success in the program, however, reminds me a little of a newspaper cartoon strip I read. In it, a small dog sits on the curb every day, waiting for the bus to go by so he could chase it down the road— in hopes of one day catching it. Well, one day he finally does it. With his teeth sunk into the bus' bumper, the caption underneath the picture read: Now what?

We're incredibly pleased about the positive results that stemmed from Kids in the Woods. We've received endorsements from the news media, from Congress, from conservation leaders, and from citizens. But where should we go from here?

There's no question: We recognize the potential for greater results. In fact, the Forest Service recently agreed to offer another half million in cost share agreements for the program next spring. But there's more we need to do.

My personal hope is Kids in the Woods will not be a one-hit wonder— we can't just attract children for one-time experiences in the woods. Our vision is to use these programs to introduce them to nature, encourage their curiosity in its wonders, and nurture an appreciation for our environment that will last a lifetime. It's a lofty goal, considering the tumultuous nature of kids.

It will take creative, innovative strategies to successfully intertwine the gadgets and gizmos of technology with the timeless wonders of Nature's gifts. One way might be to develop a "Kids in the Woods" blog allowing program veterans to share special memories and photos of their adventures while maintaining ongoing relationships with other students, as well as with forests themselves. That's just one idea that comes to mind. I'm sure you're thinking of others.

At the very least, we should keep these conversations going so that we work together to explore new and exciting possibilities for this program.

Connecting to Our Past

What's really intriguing about Kids in the Woods success is that it attracted new attention to a concept that is certainly not new for the Forest Service— nor our long-time partners and cooperators. We have always maintained a strong commitment to help our youngsters understand the values of forests and ecosystems. There are numerous traditional partners, cooperators, and conservation educators who have amassed extensive successes in programs with similar goals. Perhaps we can use this new momentum to honor that tradition— even advance it. I think immediately about the National Wild Turkey Federation and their Young Jakes program; or NatureWatch, where we reached more than three million children and averaged more than 1,200 partners a year in a program that helps children understand wildlife, fish, plants, and their connection to ecosystems. I think about our National Fishing Week, which for 20 years has promoted aquatic conservation. We can reflect on Leave no Trace and a host of other conservation education programs like the Student Conservation Association and Junior Forest Ranger Program. And of course there's Smokey Bear. These programs reached almost four-and-a-half million students and educators in fiscal year 2006.

In many ways, the Kids in the Woods brand can help link our historical and traditional programs to today's challenges. It's my hope that both our traditional, long-time partners and new partners will unabashedly use this brand to highlight their success in connecting kids to nature. The more we corporately adopt this brand to advance all of these efforts, the greater the impact over time and the longer the life of the programs.

Partnership Opportunities— beyond Children

Kids in the Woods is a tremendous undertaking, and we must use it to go beyond the children. We must also appeal to their parents. The challenges we face unveil new opportunities for partnerships, especially in strategically broadening the circle of conservation leadership across our urban and rural landscape. I look forward to advancing our efforts to reach urban and minority communities. It certainly will take innovative strategies to successfully connect nature to the nation and is a key part of our strategic plan.

But, frankly, everyone from Walmart to the YMCA is working overtime to target populations of the future— and all are finding it difficult. I think this is one area where we can learn together and accomplish great things. We must better engage urban and minority youth in nature-based activities. The broad authority of the Forest Service allows programs to work all across the landscape, from inner-city neighborhoods to federally designated wilderness areas. Urban national forests are taking advantage of their proximity to urban areas, enlisting new recruits in the conservation cause. The Urban and Community Forestry Program provides technical, financial, and other aid to cities, states, and nonprofit groups for maintaining and improving urban forests. Such forests are valuable learning laboratories. Changes in public values and new recreational trends often show up first in urban centers. So urban forest managers have a unique opportunity to study new trends and to test responses.

Conservation and Kids

As I walked through the forests of New Hampshire and Vermont as a youngster, I had little thought of how they came to be or what they would— or could— become. For me, they were just there, and I loved them.

But our most important resource in this country is not forests, vital as they are. It is not water, although life itself would cease to exist without it. It is people.

The natural resource challenges of today will not be resolved in a few years, but in a few generations. Today's children— and theirs— will need to be able to take the baton and finish the race. For that, they will need full environmental literacy and a strong land ethic. It is our job collectively to see that they get both.

The Forest Service will be there with you. We will work with you to ensure that every child in America, alongside their parents, has the opportunity to personally experience the Great Outdoors, whether it is in a remote mountain wilderness or in a spot of nature created and protected in the heart of our cities. This will be a tremendous undertaking involving tens or even hundreds of millions of children. In pursuing this goal, above all others, we will absolutely need your help— and the help of many, many more.

The Forest Service has many other activities underway that will continue to build our capacity to provide quality recreational experiences. I appreciate your willingness to be a part of this work.

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