Policy commentary

Reconnecting Americans to Nature

Apr 18, 2011 | Margaret A. Walls, Juha Siikamäki

In February, the federal government released a plan for reshaping conservation and recreation policy. It includes reconnecting Americans, especially American youth, to nature and enhancing the outdoor experience in urban areas. Although admirable goals, there is extremely little information—about how much people use urban recreation areas and how much children connect to nature and play outdoors—that can help guide policy. Federal funding has shifted away from supporting recreation and better information would be useful in evaluating the benefits of reversing that trend.

In April 2010, President Obama called for a research initiative on how to reconnect Americans to the great outdoors and establish conservation priorities for the 21st century. In February 2011, the collective efforts of four agencies—the Council on Environmental Quality, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture, and Department of the Interior—culminated in the release of America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations (AGO report), which outlines an overarching plan to reshape future conservation and recreation policy. The plan is aimed at reconnecting Americans, especially young people, with the great outdoors by strengthening conservation efforts, including landscape-scale conservation, improving access to recreation resources, raising awareness of the value and benefits of America’s great outdoors, engaging young people in conservation and outdoor recreation through service opportunities and other programs, and establishing more urban parks and green spaces.

Achieving these goals will require bold action in a time of fiscal austerity. To this end, the report proposes increasing greatly the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to its full legislative limit of $900 million per year. Though not widely known to the American public, the LWCF has been instrumental for many great accomplishments in conservation and outdoor recreation. Created in 1964, the LWCF has been the primary source of funds for federal land acquisitions for national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other lands set aside for conservation and recreation. In addition, it provides grants to states for parks and recreation projects undertaken by state and local governments.

LWCF funds have made it possible for over 4.5 million acres of land to be protected in the federal program and 2.6 million in the stateside program through direct acquisition. Many more acres are statutorily protected through state and local development projects financed with the state grants. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, 98 percent of the counties in the United States have at least one park or recreation project that has received LWCF funding.

But the LWCF is only one of many federal conservation platforms: the report identifies a total of 270 federal conservation and outdoor recreation related programs distributed across 12 federal agencies. State programs and private conservation efforts add further complexity to the conservation montage, yet no systematic process brings together all the different players. One overarching theme of the AGO report is a call for better coordination among the different actors in conservation and recreation, including federal and state programs and private organizations such as land trusts, which are increasingly prominent in the conservation arena. Better coordination is also needed across the geographical landscape, which currently forms a mosaic of protected and unprotected areas, often crossing jurisdictional and private property boundaries. Landscape-level conservation, which can help generate greater benefits from conservation investments, is another major theme of the AGO report.

The AGO theme of reconnecting people to nature has resonated in recent years. Some authors argue that the fundamental popularity of outdoor recreation is declining, and that people are becoming progressively more detached from nature. Others have reported on a drop in children’s physical and outdoor activity. Richard Louv, the author of a national best-seller Last Child in the Woods, has coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to describe the purported disconnect between children and nature as a syndrome. Aside from health problems associated with a lack of physical activity, experts also argue that a failure to raise nature-connected children today may lead to a shortage of environmental stewards tomorrow.

The Issues at Stake

We recently investigated many of these issues in conservation and outdoor recreation. Our research was part of a wide-ranging assessment conducted for the Outdoor Resources Review Group (ORRG), a bipartisan commission of conservationists, recreation professionals, and government officials, co-chaired by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The group followed in the footsteps of past commissions—the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, which published its highly influential report on the status of America’s outdoor resources in 1962 and led directly to creation of the LWCF; the 1983 Outdoor Resources Review Group; and the follow-on effort of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors in 1987. Our mandate was to conduct an independent assessment of the status, challenges, and emerging issues in the context of conservation and recreation policy. This assessment served as a companion to the ORRG policy recommendations report. Both our findings and the ORRG policy recommendations largely agree with the issues raised in the AGO report.

Our research study points out one important aspect largely absent from the plan, however, which is the pressing need for better information to support conservation and outdoor recreation policy design and implementation. Public policy decisions regarding conservation and outdoor recreation are currently made with tremendously incomplete information. For example, even the basics of the popularity of outdoor recreation as a whole are far from perfectly documented and understood. Moreover, despite considerable public investments in promoting outdoor recreation, reliable information is essentially missing on the value of the accomplishments of the hundreds of conservation programs currently in existence. The situation makes it difficult to plan, evaluate, and improve public policy, or even to conclusively determine whether the popularity of outdoor recreation in all its forms is declining, increasing, or holding steady.

For example, while visitation to federal and state recreation areas is relatively well documented, information on the availability of local and urban recreation areas and their usage is all but missing. The few data available show visits to be high. For example, a Trust for Public Land study found that the 75 largest city parks in 2007 hosted 289 million visitors on just 800,000 acres of land. In contrast, the National Park Service had about the same number of visitors on 84 million acres of land, and the 14 million acres of state parks attracted 730 million visitors. Urban parks probably generally receive shorter visits than national and state parks, but nevertheless, these numbers underscore the need to formulate a better basic understanding of urban outdoor recreation.

Another area in need of better understanding relates to concerns over “nature-deficits” in children. While it’s a plausible assumption in general terms, much of the fundamental evidence available on the topic draws from anecdotal evidence and small-scale studies in few locations. We found some sources of national data to examine youth outdoor recreation activities. For example, data on teenagers from the American Time Use Survey show that an average teenager spends almost three times as much time on computers and TV as on physical activities. Moreover, boys spend far more time than girls in outdoor pursuits and engaging in physical activities in general (even in school related activities).

Researchers and government agencies need to look for more comprehensive data and generalizable results on nature recreation by teenagers and children. For example, a rigorous, regular national survey that would document outdoor recreation among youths and allow examination of the factors that explain it would be extremely valuable. In the absence of better information, policy programs are designed and implemented without a clear understanding of their potential impacts and effectiveness.

Another problematic area is federal funding and how it can shift. Our study documents how, in the 1990s and 2000s, government funding moved more toward conservation and relatively less was spent on recreation. These recent decades have seen growth in the number of federal programs that focus on habitat protection, farmland preservation, wetlands restoration, and other conservation-focused activities but declining LWCF appropriations and reductions in budgets across the board for operations and maintenance of parks and recreation areas. These changes highlight the need for an evaluation of priorities and a better understanding of the benefits and costs of alternative approaches.

In today’s challenging political and economic situation, is a concerted effort to reconsider and redefine conservation and outdoor recreation policy warranted? We think yes. Though conservation and recreation enjoy broad support among many constituents and are both subject to considerable government and private spending, no systematic and overarching conservation and outdoor policy yet exists. Will the America’s Great Outdoors report resolve the most pressing conservation and outdoor policy issues of today and the near future? Maybe not, but the effort and benefits from the wide-ranging backing of goals make a good start. If anything, we might propose an added focus on knowledge generation to help make conservation and outdoor recreation policy more effective.


Further Readings:

America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. February 2011. Council on Environmental Quality; Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Department of Agriculture; U.S. Department of Interior.

The State of the Great Outdoors: America's Parks, Public Lands, and Recreation Resources. Margaret A. Walls, Sarah R Darley, Juha V. Siikamäki, RFF Report, September 2009.

Great Outdoors America. The Report by the Outdoor Resources Review Group. July 2009.