Inspiring Future Conservation Leaders Through Outdoor Education

Andy Hart

Andy Hart is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

The idea of conservation as Federal management of land and water resources to ensure future sustainable use and boots on the ground service to public lands goes back many decades. While these are still important themes, we are just beginning to learn what conservation looks like for “Generation Like.” Children having authentic experiences in nature at a young age can no longer be taken for granted, yet is critical for developing conservation minded citizens. Competition for young people's attention from digital media and social networking is fierce. Tremendous amounts of information, true, false and otherwise is available at our fingertips 24/7. A responsible Federal budget may no longer be able to financially support all of the conservation needs of our country. Increasing population and modern lifestyles are demanding more and more of our natural resources and environmental issues are becoming more and more complex. Undoubtedly, it is a real challenge to address all of these concerns in the modern conservation landscape but from my perspective, outdoor and environmental education offers a significant tool to do so and it is incredibly rewarding to try. At Nevada Outdoor School, we are continually musing on these issues and trying to bring innovative solutions to life.

When engaging young Americans in conservation, it is important to be mindful of their reduced attention span and need for more timely gratification. Youth conservation service projects can be designed to do this, ensuring they can see the results of their efforts and still provide tangible physical benefit to the land. Of course, with youth, the physical outcomes of a project should be far secondary to the experience. Some of the greatest conservation minds our country has ever known did very little at a young age for our natural resources. Folks like John Muir and Aldo Leopold were documented to have been a bit rough with nature in their formative years, but the depth of connection and passion those experiences created propelled these leaders to ultimately benefit public lands in profound ways so that future generations could enjoy similar experiences. Even as part of formal outdoor and environmental education programs, youth need time for unstructured exploration.

Likewise, youth propensity for technology shouldn’t be feared by those of us working hard to get them away from the computer screen and into nature. Certainly, we should instill in our children the value of putting technology away for a while and enjoying the natural sights and sounds around us. However, there are a variety of ways modern electronics can assist in authentic experiences in the outdoors. Some examples might be a camera with GPS location tagging, a digital water quality tool used for a citizen springs assessment or a hand held GPS used for a family EarthCaching adventure. Additionally, reflection remains an important aspect of any learning experience. We need to embrace the fact that reflection today may be quite appropriate in the form of blogging, tweeting or posting about that experience.

While these are just two of the hurdles to overcome when engaging youth in the outdoors and conservation, we try not to be overwhelmed. Never forget that taking kids outside is supposed to be fun. The more fun it is, the more likely we are to see the next generation develop into conservation-minded adults, with the science background to think critically and make thoughtful decisions on conservation and land-use issues. This idea drives Nevada Outdoor School in our work, providing opportunities for youth and families to learn and grow outdoors and engaging as many as 1,000 students each month with inquiry-based, outdoor and environmental education initiatives.

Andy Hart is Executive Director at Nevada Outdoor School, a 501(c)(3) organization inspiring exploration of the natural world, responsible stewardship of our habitat and dedication to community. Andy believes that America’s public lands are at the top of the list of things that make our country great.

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