OUT: Sunday Column April 19, 2009

Efforts grow to boost outside activity among valley’s youth

Everyone knew children were losing touch with nature, but no one put a name to the problem until author Richard Louv published his best-selling “Last Child in the Woods.”

Louv calls the problem “nature-deficit disorder,” and as he claims on his Web site (richardlouv.com), students who take part in environmental learning do significantly better in school.

Why? Louv says it’s because “the best learning takes place when all the senses are engaged, and that happens most readily outside in nature.”

The appearance of “Last Child in the Woods” spurred a national conversation about the connection (and disconnection) between children and nature. It even spawned an international push called the No Child Left Inside Movement.

While no one claims this year’s Outdoor Heritage Day, set for 9 a.m. Saturday at Palisade’s Riverbend Park, is connected in any way with April’s monthlong celebration of “No Child Left Inside Days,” it’s clear the two have everything in common.

Outdoor Heritage Day began last year after Frank McGee, a district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, saw a need to involve youngsters in outdoors activities.

McGee, active in local chapters of Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, had been working for a couple years with the Western Slope Chapter of the federation on that group’s Jakes Day, an activity day aimed at young turkey hunters and would-be turkey hunters 17 years and younger.

The local turkey federation chapter started to shrink, and as McGee saw more and more of the burden shift to the DOW, he thought the event would be better if more groups were involved.

“It occurred to me it would be a lot less work for everyone to get more involved,” McGee said.

“Once I started talking to some of the groups, I discovered there was a lot of interest in seeing the thing expanded.”

Among those McGee approached was the Colorado Sportsmen Wildlife Fund and the Colorado Mule Deer Association. The Sportsmen Fund has been active in youth education, including the popular Pathways to Fishing program. The fund also was one of the original boosters of the legislation establishing the Wildlife Management Public Education Advisory Council, whose aim is to educate the public about the roles played by hunting and fishing in the state’s wildlife management.

“When Frank talked to us about getting involved, we saw it as a great opportunity to get some important things done,” said Denny Behrens of Grand Junction, who serves both as a member of the Sportsmen Fund board of directors and with the Colorado Mule Deer Association. “Last year, we had 250 kids and Lynn Ensley (executive director of the Sportsmen Fund) and I spent the whole day putting hooks on rods and showing kids how to fish.”

Behrens certainly doesn’t regret his day-long labors.

“It was important for kids to experience that and to be able to catch some fish,” Behrens said.

“The neatest thing was we had a lot of positive feedback from the kids and their parents.”

This year, the Outdoor Heritage Day (information at http://www.outdoorheritageday.com) lists nearly 30 sponsors, and Behrens said it might attract 1,000 youngsters and their parents. That’s a lot of free hot dogs and brats, because lunch and all the activities are free.

“Essentially, the idea is to get the kids outdoors, and it really doesn’t matter if it’s hunting or fishing or rock climbing,” McGee said. “Only that they are outdoors. Typically we focus more on hunting and fishing and by having a broader reach, we can reach more kids.”

Among the long list of activities planned are fishing, rock climbing, a hunting simulator, a portable shooting range and turkey and elk-calling demonstrations. Young anglers will have plenty of targets with the DOW stocking the Riverbend Park ponds.

There’s one change this year: While there will be several hundred fishing poles given away, with so many youngsters expected, there’s a request that youngsters already owning fishing equipment bring that with them.

Behrens sees nothing but good coming from the day spent with a fishing pole in hand.

“I went back out (to Riverbend) after last year’s Outdoor Heritage Day, and you’d see kids still fishing with the fishing poles we gave them,” he said. “To me, that’s where it all starts. If you can put a fishing rod in a kid’s hands, chances are he or she will be turn into a hunter and fisherman.”

Or at the very least, a better student who recognizes the importance of protecting wildlife habitat and the environment.

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