New Alliances for Conservation in the Fitness Community?

This past Sunday I took a walk on a trail at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Springfield Nature Center. I was struck by a couple of things that beautiful autumn morning. The density of new, large houses next to the Center seems to suggest people are willing to spend more to be closer to nature. The second observation was the type of visitors I saw on the Center grounds. Middle-aged whites wearing exercise pants and jackets of bright pink, white or green were smiling, talking and walking.  These folks appeared to me to be more interested in fitness in nature than in nature itself. No cameras or binoculars around their necks. But they chose to walk in nature not their neighborhood, fitness club or the mall.

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As I saw on Sunday morning, Americans are enjoying nature not as a place to hunt or fish but to be outdoors and be active. Richard Louv wrote recently on the declining revenue for conservation and the potential to reverse the trend by broadening conservation’s support base – by connecting everyone with nature. “A strong conservation movement is essential to connecting people to nature. Likewise, the preservation of nature depends, in turn, on the success of the children and nature movement. As we grow this movement, the funding pie — for the conservation of all species, including humans, will grow.”

Some research suggests an increasing number of Americans are walking outdoors. As America becomes more urban and its citizens increasingly overweight, shouldn’t we work hard to introduce our non-hunting friends, family and neighbors to the idea of fitness in nature? When adults find a connection and need for nature isn’t it possible they’ll connect children to nature too? We could broaden support for our work by seeking alliances with the fitness and healthcare profession. Leadership in conservation includes building a constituency for our work – informing and inspiring – so they see value in the work we do on their behalf. What alliances do you believe we should be building?

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About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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7 Responses to New Alliances for Conservation in the Fitness Community?

  1. Doug Staller says:

    Jim, Of course we should do this and many of us are. Michelle at Kenai has been working with a diabetes group for years. What this means though is we must invest adequately in our trails and staff that support and design them, If we get folks out walking and they experience the natural world in a positive way we can move them from where they sit on the awarenss/appreciation/concern/commitment/action spectrum in a direction where they are more apt to be active conservation supporters. We need to be ready for folks at all stages of the conservation consciousness development. Too often we focus on making them aware or working with our volunteers we work with on a daily basis.

  2. Willy says:

    Yes, it could bring about increased awareness. However, I doubt these folks would stop and read interpretive panels; EE Specialists, Interpretive Ranger, etc., are needed to provide one-to-one education.

  3. Jimmy says:

    Thanks for your comment Willy. I agree with your observation that fitness walkers likely won’t stop to read panels. So we will need other communication methods. Good point!

  4. Noah says:

    In the FWS, we often talk about connecting urban/suburban people with nature. And I believe this is a central goal of ours because we presume that people—once they realize that they enjoy nature—will then support or otherwise advocate for the preservation of wildlife and natural areas. The future of preserving or funding wild places depends on public support.

    I visit a wide variety of natural areas in the DC region—county or regional parks, national parks, national wildlife refuges, local trails and picnic areas. It’s my experience that the overwhelming majority of other visitors I encounter are out for the same reasons Jimmy outlined above—to exercise, to socialize with friends on a pretty day, etc. It probably goes without saying that these folks likely aren’t noticing that the trees are overgrown with English ivy, or that mile-a-minute vine has completely taken over what had been a nice patch of shrubs. They likely won’t notice the broken water control structure, and the effects it will have on our ability to manage water for shorebirds and waterfowl. They may not notice that, due to county budget cuts, the program to cull deer has been suspended and now deer densities are through the roof and there are no young tree saplings in the forest. They may not notice the stream bottom is completely silted in and the stream channel is eroding badly around all that carelessly strewn rip-rap.

    I guess my point is that we won’t accomplish our goal of building a caring conservation constituency if we focus only on increasing total visitation. The type of visitor matters, and the experience they have matters. I have seen first-time visitors have a disappointing experience on refuges simply because no picnic tables were offered. And so these once-enthusiastic visitors were left to sit on the asphalt in the parking lot to eat their picnic lunch. Do we think they will come back? Probably not.

    So, I would propose that, yes, we encourage all types of visitors to enjoy natural areas. But to accomplish our goal of building a support network (that will voice that support with wallets and votes), then we need to educate people once they’ve arrived. Because many federal, state, and county agencies don’t have the funds to have interpretive specialists and rangers on-site to educate and inspire visitors, then creative partnerships with NGOs and volunteer groups should be bolstered. At a time when our budgets are declining, I would suggest that it could be a serious mistake with long-term consequences for have Visitor Services positions be first on the chopping block.

    So I have a question for the group… We know that the casual users of natural areas are out for a stroll on a nice day, or to exercise….and the sky is blue and the vegetation is green; there are birds singing and life seems good! I think a big challenge for conservationists is to keep these people happy and positive; not to assault them with the invasives and the channel erosion and the budget cuts. So how do we find that balance between helping enrich their experience thru providing positive, interesting and fun experiences, while also educating them about the imperiled plight of wildlife and natural areas so they can become advocates (with their wallets and votes).

    Jimmy, thanks for starting yet another important conversation!

  5. Jimmy says:

    Thank you Noah for your thoughtful input here. With a declining budget, it appears the USFWS is focusing on its core purposes – species conservation in and outside of the National Wildlife Refuge System. As a result funding for visitor services is understandably vulnerable. Perhaps encouraging non-wildlife dependent uses on refuges and connecting with those users (and their NGOs) through social media is a relatively cost-neutral manner to allow more people to first enjoy, then care about nature.

  6. Melinda says:

    Jimmy, I thoroughly enjoy all of your blog posts. They connect me to my care for your life’s passion. The work that you and your coworkers do is something that most people take for granted. This is why those people do not read the sign. They do not seek out the education.

    I do not hunt or fish. I hike or kayak with friends, but we are geocaching. My friends and I appreciate nature, but unless the geocache page tells us about an issue, or a sign is there to explain the problems in the area, we really have no idea since we are not well educated in those types of things.

    Most National Parks do not allow traditional geocaches where a container is left behind, but a few do. Many State Parks do allow them, and their employees are the ones that place them. Most National Wildlife Refuges do not. The ones that do allow them often require permits to place the geocaches, with periodic reviews to make sure they are not causing “geotrails” or otherwise harming a sensitive area.

    One of the articles that I reviewed on the topic of National Wildlife Refuges and geocaching had statements such that the geocaches were buried (never buried) and no control over placement (geocaching.com utilizes a review process – the policies of the land manager are always enforced before a geocache can be published to the site. ie An application system in use would require the owner to submit the approval number, or name of the approving land manager, or copy of the permit, or whatever agreement has been made.) I think that lack of information on both sides has caused some issues, which if they are worked through in the proper manner, could benefit all involved.

    Each geocache page is written up by the owner to share information about where the geocache is hidden. This is one method of educating people. There are other types of geocaches where there is no physical container left at the marked location. One of those types is an EarthCache which is educational and has to do with geology. Often times, these could also apply to things that you may want to draw attention to in an area like the channel errosion. Another type is an event called a CITO (Cache In – Trash Out) where the geocachers come together to clear an area of littler, remove invasive plants, etc.

    The idea that just came to me that there should be another cache type that has to do with conservation. In this way, no container is left, but there is a cache page that gives the information to people. The cache owner then asks a few questions that the finder has to email the answers to the owner to show that they were there and learned something from the experience. There is a lot to this and I would welcome indepth conversation, if you are interested.

    In any case – keep caring, keep writing, and keep making it a better world.

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