Our History: Youth connection to the forest, past and present
Deputy District Ranger, Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District
There are pirates in the forest. I witnessed the sword fight. The intense battle between the two swashbucklers unfolded on the half-rotten log that extended over the gentle late-summer creek flow.
These pirates are small, carry a big stick and a strong imagination. Along with pirates, other adventurers may emerge, such as princesses, dragons, knights and ninjas. Take a child to the woods and let the adventure begin.
As a Forest Service employee raising two young boys, playing outdoors is a family priority. In the forest, we create memories, share adventures, study nature and challenge ourselves.
I notice a decline in my family’s attitude, health and emotions when we are disconnected from nature. Like most people, our family spends too much time attached to cellphones, video games, computers and TV. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average person spends approximately 90 percent of their time indoors.
I pondered this statistic, thinking about the previous generations of youth that observed nature in daily activities growing up on farms, hunting and subsisting on the land. Being close to nature, they understood the connections with their food, water and homes that often originate from forest resources.
Nature plays a smaller role in most youth lives today. The term Nature Deficit Disorder is used by author Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” to describe how excess technology and a growing nature disconnect impacts children. Studies have indicated correlations between lack of contact with nature and obesity, depression and other conditions in children.
Feeling the need for some vitamin nature, I instructed the kids, “Turn off the electronics, it’s time to go to the woods.”
With groans to disconnect devices they reply, “We don’t feel like a hike today.” I responded with my father’s phrase he used when my brothers and I did not want to camp, “You will go and you will have fun!”
Just as my brothers and I unenthusiastically went to the woods, so joined my boys for our excursion. Watching my boys transform to pirates, it reminded me of how nature quickly envelops your senses and perspective changes.
Taking time for a teachable moment with the pirates, I show them that their “ship” is a lodgepole pine tree with an old lightning-strike scar. Nature experiences and adult guidance in childhood can bridge imaginative free play with learning about their natural environment. Parental and adult influence in nature settings has been recognized in developing key public land stewardship leaders in the United States.
As a sickly child, President Theodore Roosevelt found vitality beside his father in the outdoors horseback riding, hunting, hiking and studying taxidermy. As president, he established the U.S. Forest Service and created five national parks. Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot the first chief of the Forest Service in 1905. Pinchot was also influenced by his upbringing, with his mother providing nature lessons at an early age.
As a young adult, he went to France to learn about profitable scientific forestry and founded forestry practices in the United States. Reflecting, I, too, had significant interaction with teachers and family, centered on conservation education programs and public land visits that shaped my career choice.
Adult encouragement to guide children toward nature experiences may cultivate a career. Though more importantly, this exposure develops a lifelong awareness of forest ecosystems and their contribution to our livelihood with clean air, water, food, timber and recreation opportunities.
History of Youth in the Woods
During the economic Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put millions of young single men ages 18-24 to work conserving our natural resources.
Some of these young men worked on conservation projects on the White River National Forest as early as 1933. The CCC camps were established in Glenwood Springs, up the Fryingpan River, Tigiwon south of Minturn, the Eagle area, Rifle and Meeker.
During this time, crews built roads, trails and recreation infrastructure, cleared ski trails and fought wildfires. The skilled work of the CCC youth still remains visible on the forest. Examples include hiking trails built to Notch Mountain, Hanging Lake, Crater Lake, the Tigiwon campground and infrastructure like the Chapman Dam.
The CCC is recognized as the single greatest conservation program in America. This program influenced modern conservation and youth programs such as AmeriCorps.
While we have a great history of youth engaging and working in the forest, more must be done. The Nature Deficit Disorder that people witness in youth has led to a host of education initiatives to get kids outside, such as the Forest Service More Kids in the Woods campaign. The forest partners with many nonprofits and volunteer organizations to collaborate and engage youth through nature activities that develop their curiosity while providing conservation education and land ethic development.
A number of programs provide advancing experience opportunities through school camps, high school crew programs, college internships, seasonal work opportunities and potential careers.
Youth: Forest Future
We are a fortunate to steward many natural wonders and resources in this country, and work to connect the next generation to these special places.
It is an honor to pass along the outdoor spark to youth and teach them about our unique American public land heritage. As a public servant, I see the importance of mindfully inspiring our next generation of employees and informed citizens to engage with the Forest Service mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.
There are pirates in the forest. The Forest Service wants more. Take a child to the woods, watch them play, teach them or, better yet, grab a stick and transform into their world. Invigorate your imagination, sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world. As, my dad always said, “Go! You will have fun.”