National Geographic : 2016 Oct
54 national geographic • october 2016 anyway. We put our screens aside, slow-sipped our beers. As it turned out, we hadn’t really missed anything. But we had gained something. IN EARLY FALL I went to North Cascades Na- tional Park—the American Alps, chock-full of glaciers containing the frozen memories of wet winters past. A bundle of high peaks in Wash- ington State, the park is one of the most remote places in the contiguous 48 states and also one of the least visited parks. But here, deep in the for- ested embrace of the upper Skagit River Valley, you can find the next two generations of Amer- icans getting to know a national park. I heard hooting like owls and howling like wolves, com- ing from a circle of fifth graders and their wilder- ness instructors. The kids were from Birchwood Elementary in Bellingham, Washington, a school where almost half the students are nonwhite and most had never been in a national park. They were there for Mountain School, three days in outdoor immersion run by the North Cascades Institute. Their guides—staff naturalists, park rangers, graduate students—were all millennials. Without exception, the instructors thought the concern about their generation’s attachment to the land was valid, but overstated. “It’s not like all of a sudden people are going to stop loving nature,” said Emma Ewert, who had gone to Mountain School and returned as an instructor. “But you do need the exposure, the fun of playing in the woods.” For that, perhaps, we should look to today’s parents, those afraid to let their children wander a little bit on their own. The institute’s co-founder and executive di- rector, Saul Weisberg, is a self-described Jewish kid from New York by way of Cleveland. He’s 62 now, wiry, with a bounce to his step. He learned to love the parks from his family, camping in a tent not unlike the one my folks used. He became a seasonal ranger at North Cascades and noticed a troubling pattern among visitors. “I don’t think I ever saw a person of color in the backcountry,” he said. He started Mountain School in 1990, partnering with the Park Service. About 3,000 students a year go through the program. Though these kids lived only two hours or so away, this park was a strange new world for them. Many said it was the first time they’d been off the electronic leash of a family smartphone. “ They have a very short attention span,” Ewert said. Most of the instructors I met, as with top brass at the Park Service, said a big problem with chil- dren was nature deficit disorder, a term coined by writer Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. He argued that certain behavior- al problems may be a consequence of how little time young people spend outdoors. By contrast, kids who are not divorced from nature are less likely to get sick or stressed and are more adapt- able, Louv claimed. Technology gets the blame. When I talked with Louv, he expressed opti- mism that things were turning around. He cited the record parks visitation last year and the pop- ularity of Every Kid in a Park. His latest initiative is to get more young people to experience nature in the city. It’s the best way to start a lifelong love affair, he said. “More connection and care for na- ture near home will create more respect, care, and political support for national parks.” At Mountain School, the instructors note changes in behavior over the few days the kids spend in the forest. They start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’ ” said Carolyn Hinshaw, a teach- er at Birchwood. The parks director, Jarvis, is a big fan of Moun- tain School and similar programs, like Nature Bridge, which brings 30,000 students every year to a half dozen national parks. But he cautions that one visit does not a park lover make. “Some- thing clicks, a light goes on, just by having some exposure,” he said. “I think it takes three touches for someone to change. A great first impression, A conservation constituency in a newer generation will be needed to protect wild places through the next hundred years.