Become an outdoor mentor to perpetuate appreciation for nature, wildlife, adventure
It's happening all around the country.
Government agencies, equipment manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, they're all emphasizing the need to get more people involved in outdoor recreation, be it hunting and fishing, hiking and camping, biking and backpacking, paddling and skiing or anything else.
Earlier this month, for example, Maine became the eighth state to create an Office of Outdoor Recreation. Four additional states have, if not executive level offices, at least state-level advisory councils focused on promoting the outdoors.
More than 30 state fish and wildlife agencies, meanwhile, have in the last few years hired "R3" coordinators — so-called because their focus is on recruiting, retaining and re-activity hunters and anglers.
The reasons for all of that are many. One big one is money.
The Outdoor Industry Association, a trade organization representing many makers of outdoor equipment, praised Maine's move in large part because it supports the state's $8.2 billion dollar outdoor economy.
"The outdoor recreation economy is a growing industry accounting for 2.2 percent of our nation's (gross domestic product), outpacing many other traditional sectors," said David Weinstein, state and local policy director for the Association.
Maintaining tradition and political clout are other motivations.
Promoting outdoor recreation is a big job, though.
Many state agencies are using their own professionals – people who work in the outdoor field — to get new people following in their footsteps. That's critical for wildlife conservation, which relies on a dwindling number of hunters and anglers for financial support.
But that's asking a lot
Pennsylvania, for example, has lost tens of thousands of hunters over the past 30 years. Still, it has more than 600,000, and they support a $1 billion-plus economy in the state.
To boost hunter numbers by even 10 percent, though, means creating more than 60,000 newbies.
There's no way the Game Commission, with a staff of about 400 people, can do that alone, said Jim Daley, a member of the agency's board of directors. Rather, the commission needs to turn more everyday sportsmen into mentors, he suggested.
"What we need is a model where we train the trainers," Daley said.
That applies to more than just hunting.
The Coleman Co. and the Outdoor Foundation do an annual survey looking at trends in camping. They survey campers and ask them things like why they camp, where they go and why.
One thing stands out.
Ninety-two percent of first-time campers said they were "very likely" or "likely" to go camping again. That's significant, obviously.
But what's really noteworthy is their motivation.
It's social. Campers said, time after time, that they would go again to hang out with a spouse, family or friends.
In short, if someone — a "trainer," so to speak — asked them to go camping, they probably would.
That's where you and I come in.
In years past, many, many people grew up in environments where they were readily exposed to the outdoors. That's not so true now.
More urban communities with less green space, more indoor activities, busier schedules, those things and more conspire to keep people from getting outdoors. So it's more important than ever that veteran hunters, anglers, campers, hikers, mountain bikers, skiers, backpackers and other outdoors types mentor the next generation.
How to do it?
Well, here are a half dozen ideas on how to be a good outdoor mentor.
Start local. Far-off, once-a-year trips to exotic wilderness areas or national parks are worthwhile. But demonstrate that adventure can be found close to home, too. The local county park may seem tame to you. But it's still nature to them. Make outdoor fun accessible and it's more likely newcomers – not just children, but adults, too — will incorporate it into their daily lives.
Think small. Your idea of the perfect weekend outdoors might involve backpacking 20 miles, sleeping on the ground and eating nothing more than tuna and crackers for dinner. Or paddling 10 hours a day. Or fishing dawn to dusk. But perhaps that's too hardcore for your apprentice, especially their fist time out. The goal is to make them want to do this again, after all, so plan something that's fun without being so taxing that it seems more about endurance than enjoyment.
Find someone different. Outdoor recreation — across all activities — has been for a long time something embraced most fully by white men. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics show that more than 90 percent of hunters and anglers nationwide, and nearly 90 percent of people who watch birds, hike, paddle and more, are white males. So consider inviting a female, a person or color or even just someone more urban than you to try the outdoors.
Embrace technology. Many outdoorsmen and women of a certain age get outside to escape technology. But it's a part of life for younger generations. So instead of demanding that they leave their cell phones at home, encourage them to use them to take pictures, share memories on social media or download maps and apps that help them relate to and appreciate what they're doing.
Plan it out. If you've got years of cross country skiing experience, or a decade of kayaking under your belt, chances are that when you leave the house, you grab a few essential gear items without a second thought. Don't assume your newcomer knows what those are. Did you tell them how to dress? How much water to bring? What to pack to keep their phone dry? Spend some time before each outing making sure they're prepared. Otherwise, your cold, wet, unhappy companion may be done after one trip.
Bring gear. If you hook someone on the outdoors, they'll contribute to the economy. All of us with closets full of gear understand that all too well. Boy, do we. So when they're first getting started, share some of your bounty. If you're taking someone small game hunting, for example, let them borrow an orange vest and hat if you can rather than making them buy stuff right away. If you're fishing or tenting, throw an extra fishing rod or sleeping bag in the truck. Eliminate expense as a barrier to participation.
Now, none of that guarantees your mentee will stick it out at all, let alone become as ardent about the outdoors as you are. But there's a chance.
So share what you love. Plant a seed and see what blooms.