Feature Article - October 2003
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Call of the Wild

From beautiful blossoms to bugs and guts, nature programs are growing as people return to their roots

By Margaret Ahrweiler


Perhaps it mirrors supply and demand, but as open space in populated areas shrinks, recreational nature programming is growing. Environmental-oriented programs are increasing every year with park district, county and state facilities adding new programs every year to meet demand.


Could it be that Little Billy and Cindy spent their idyllic youths traipsing through the woods and fields and want to duplicate that experience for their own children? Reality check: Little Billy and Cindy, now Bill and Cynthia Suburban Parent, were more likely to spend their days traipsing through the local mall, says one pro whose district's environmental programming has blossomed.

"We live in an increasingly urban environment, and the latest generation didn't have open spaces to explore in their childhoods," says Bob Dunsmuir, executive director of the Wheaton Park District in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "Even worse, it's becoming harder to preserve outdoor knowledge. It was once passed down by parents, who took kids hunting, fishing and camping. We don't see that any more."

On the up side, though, these urban parents have discovered a strong desire to reconnect with the natural world. When it comes time to teach their own kids about the real birds and bees, they are turning to the pros—naturalists, rangers, interpreters and other park professionals—to learn about their environments. Back-to-nature programs are filling up rapidly, with patrons clamoring for more.

An outdoor papermaking activity at Custer State Park in Custer, S.D.

Figures from the Association for Interpretative Naturalists, a national group of nature professionals, demonstrate this. According to Tim Merriman, the association's executive director, the group was founded in 1954 with 40 members. It now boasts 4,800 members, with research indicating that about 20,000 paid interpreters are working nationally, along with an army of more than 500,000 unpaid volunteers staffing nature programs at parks, zoos and museums.

Why this impressive growth?

"We're replacing grandma and grandpa [to teach about the outdoors]," says Merriman wryly, who notes that when he asks groups who visited their grandparents' farms, people under 40 almost never raise their hands.

A return to their natural roots and a renewed interest in life's most basic elements have also been spurred as a response to Sept. 11, Merriman adds.

"When they feel threatened, they return to nature," he says. Merriman also theorizes that as people in affluent societies have their basic needs met, they then turn to higher pursuits, such as aesthetics and education as part of the classic hierarchy of needs.