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In The Country

A Journey of a Lifetime

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(7/2014) I am probably about to ruffle some feathers, so letís get started. Iíd like to do away with the Leave No Trace dogma. If youíre an outdoor enthusiast or environmentalist Iíve probably just made you an enemy, but first hear me out. Iím not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I think there is a better and more sensible way to introduce environmental stewardship than this one size fits all approach to the outdoors. Fostering an appreciation and love for the outdoors is what will turn the next generation of kids and eventually voters into passionate users and activists for the environment and public lands.

Iíve touched on Leave No Trace in several of my past articles, and before I move forward this argument Iíd like to state that I think itís a great idea in principle. If youíve forgotten what Leave No Trace is then let me take a moment to reintroduce it. Leave No Trace is a non-profit organization and a set of principles or ethics regarding how we use and treat the great outdoors. These seven ideas are easy to follow and very reasonable. They are:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
  2. Travel/Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Leave No Trace can usually be summed up by the adage, "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." Any good skeptic (which I generally like to think I am, but sometimes Iím skeptical of even that) will tell you that you should always question everything. Period. From my experience as a professional in the realm of outdoor recreation and environmental education this outdoor dogma can come as bit off-putting.

I recently read an article about a former North Carolina State Park Ranger, Matt Browning. As in Maryland State Parks or any National Park it is illegal to collect anything Ė flowers, leaves, rocks, dirt, etc. He recalls witnessing another ranger talk with a child caught with a handful of rocks, "It made me sick. The boy was crestfallen. He was so excited about coming to the park that he wanted to take a little memento back with him. More than feeling empowered or excited to protect the natural world, now he is going to associate going to state parks with getting into trouble." It caused him to reflect on the experience and the notion behind the interaction. He continues, "What kids were taking was gravel and weedy yarrow. They were not rare, delicate pink lady slippers." State and National Parks and Leave No Trace generally advocate not to explore, to keep voices low, not to leave the trail, not to climb on trees or rocks, and what seems like not to have any fun. This former Ranger advocates a new approach, and I think there is something to it.

Browning, who is now a graduate student studying recreational use of natural areas at Virginia Tech, heard about these "Nature Play Areas." These are areas, in Europe, that have been specifically set aside to let kids be kids in the woods. They encourage them to play around and in general just get dirty, explore, and fool around in nature. He studied these areas and the kids who use them to see if there was really any harm done to the areas. His data showed that yes, there is an impact on the ecosystem tree limbs are broken, soil is compacted, and trails are made. However, these are still viable and functioning ecosystems. One interaction he describes with a child at one of these natural play areas is a poignant to the argument. He notices a child carving a stick with a knife and asked him if he would stick a living tree with the knife. The childís response was "No! It would hurt the tree; it would hurt the tree just like it would hurt me."

Browningís argument is that this is the exact ethical and emotional component that we try to foster through Leave No Trace. However, it isnít introduced through rules or ethical regiments. Itís a natural and personal relationship that has created that empathy and stewardship. Richard Louv, a well respected author in the environmental advocacy world, has more to say on this subject.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Louv describes what he calls "Nature Deficit Disorder." He links research on a lack of time spent in nature to childhood obesity, depression, and attention deficit disorder. He argues that it is necessary for the physical and emotional wellbeing of children and adults to directly experience their natural world. Many of todayís adults grew up with unstructured outdoor time playing in fields and woods. Todayís youth are sheltered indoors and seated in front of screens. Without this vital component a host of maladies can arise and have due to this new indoor epidemic. Maryland is already well underway to combating this.

The alternative is about becoming educated and actually experiencing our natural environment that will instill a passion and a sense of wonder in people. Governor Martin OíMalley introduced an environmental literacy component to high school graduation requirements. It focuses primarily on the Chesapeake Bay, natural resource management, smart growth, and conservation. In 2009 the governor even introduced an outdoor bill of rights. It pledges that every Marylander will be able to:

  1. Discover & Connect with their natural world
  2. Play and Learn Outdoors
  3. Splash and swim in the water
  4. Camp under the stars
  5. Follow a trail
  6. Catch a fish
  7. Watch wildlife
  8. Explore wild places close to home
  9. Celebrate their culture and heritage
  10. Share nature with a great mentor or teacher

These 10 ideas or promises are entitled to everyone so that the next generation will be as committed to an environmental and personal wellbeing as the last.

By simply allowing for these unfettered experiences to occur we can hopefully instill a new generation of recreational users and caretakers. Simple ideas for engaging children are to utilize Junior Ranger programs at state and national parks, volunteering with outdoor organizations, getting involved with outdoor adventure activities (whether your idea of adventure being rock climbing, white water rafting, canoeing, birding, hiking, or sitting under a tree and reading), for parks to create areas or post signs of invasives or common plants that it would be okay to collect, and the list can go on from there. The hard part is just getting out there. It can last your whole life, but once you step foot and cross that initial threshold your journey has begun and can only take you to wondrous places.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson