It’s Time to Talk to Our Kids About Nature
I want to share some disturbing facts with you. In a nationwide Nature Conservancy poll released late last year, nearly 73 percent of youth surveyed agreed that “previous generations have damaged our environment and left it to our generation to fix it.” And only one-third believe that government leaders are doing a “good job addressing major problems facing our country.” Of these same young people, 88 percent report spending time every day online, playing video games and watching TV, but only 11 percent spend daily time outside.
The growing disconnect between our children and nature is real, as is their disillusionment with the world they are inheriting. The poll results should serve as a wake-up call for all of us. Here in Utah, we are taking action. In the past few years, we have deepened our focus on education and outreach, particularly to Utah’s youth, and today I’m excited to share some of our most recent progress with you, including a major milestone for our Wings & Water Wetlands Education Program.
We launched Wings & Water in 2005, and since then it has reached more than 8,000 fourth grade students in Salt Lake and Davis Counties. Built around a guided, hands-on field trip to our award-winning visitor center at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, the program also offers lesson plans and materials for teachers based on the state core curriculum standards.
We’re teaching these students targeted science lessons, but the education goes far beyond that. For many, it’s their first meaningful nature experience—one that affects them deeply and in different ways. Pam Fitch, a teacher from Parkview Elementary in Salt Lake City, whose class participated in Wings & Water, says it best:
“I believe that spending time in a place where the horizon is distant is time that nourishes the soul. It is education that is beyond testing, but absolutely essential for the development of human compassion. Our experience at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve brings joy to my teaching, and makes me hopeful for the future.”
This spring, through a new partnership with Utah State University Botanical Center (UBC), the Wings & Water program is set to truly take off. Made possible by a generous grant from Rio Tinto Kennecott Utah Copper, the newly expanded Wings & Water program will be bolstered by UBC’s existing education platform, and will reach 70 percent more fourth graders, encompass more school districts and offer new programs to other grade levels.
In addition to growing Wings & Water, we’re using the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve to help other young people get outside as well. Youth-friendly field trips and an exciting new Great Salt Lake “patch program” for Boy and Girl Scouts are all designed to expose a new generation to the wonder of the Lake, and plant the seed for a conservation ethic that will last throughout their lives.
But we’re not solely focused on children who still have years to shape their views on the environment. We’re also reaching out to those young people who are already voting, and who will soon be creating new families and leading our communities. Through partnerships with major universities, we are helping these young adults make a real connection between their quality of life, their core values and the environment.
Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation, we have teamed up with Brigham Young University to support the Environmental Ethics Initiative (EEI), designed to increase environmental awareness among students and faculty. This fall, the first EEI lecture featured the Conservancy’s own lead scientist, M.A. Sanjayan, a veritable rock star in the conservation movement.
Sanjayan helped the standing-room only crowd of BYU students understand how the health of the world’s lands and waters is directly tied to human well-being, and how smart conservation can fight poverty. More importantly, he reminded the students of the high stakes for their own lives if conservation fails. “Right now, people are doing great. But it has come at a cost, and that cost isn’t going to be paid by my generation.”
I’m proud to report the Conservancy is supporting similar conservation lectures and other outreach activities at Weber State University, the University of Utah and Westminster College.
Finally, thanks to our Canyonlands Research Center, we’re creating new educational opportunities and resources for college students and academics throughout Utah and around the world. Based at the Dugout Ranch, and geared toward finding solutions to land and water pressures on the Colorado Plateau, the Center is supporting undergraduate and graduate research projects on topics from endangered species and forest health to carbon sequestration.
With Utah State University as a founding partner, alongside public land agencies and land users like ranchers and recreationalists, the Center is providing a nexus for people to reconnect with and reinvigorate this special region.
The Conservancy has always understood that people are a crucial part of the equation for conservation success, but we know we need to strengthen this emphasis. Now more than ever, we must talk not just about critical landscapes and species, but also about human welfare and economics, and even just the simple joy of getting outside. And we need to have these conversations on hikes with our kids, at the dinner table, and online through the social media channels they use every day.
The national poll results were alarming, but they also contained glimmers of hope. Sixty-six percent of those youth polled said they “have had a personal experience in nature” that made them appreciate it more. The data suggest that if American youth are given more opportunities to have a meaningful experience outdoors, they will be more likely to value nature and feel empowered to protect it.