There is this dilemma that has been perplexing hunter-conservationists for decades. American youth is losing touch with reality. They are less likely to hunt that any generation before them. The entire North American Model of Wildlife Conservation will collapse without their active participation and understanding of what our role in a healthy environment really is. How can they know, to name one example, that an overpopulation of deer results in a browse line that then harms even small game and even songbird populations if enough of today’s youth don’t actively participate in the natural process by being hunters? Also, how can we fund our very successful model of wildlife conservation without them buying into outdoor participation by hunting, shooting and fishing?
In an in-depth attempt to understand the problem, and thereby come up with informed solutions, a study led by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, Yale University, called “The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection” used surveys, focus groups and more to reach out to more than 11,000 adults and youth in an attempt to understand how Americans interact with the outdoors.
Anyone who understands our real role in nature will find many of the results in this 352-page report depressing.
Though it found that 85 percent of today’s youth are interested in wild animals, 68 percent had “no interest at all” in hunting. Another 20 percent did have “some” interest in hunting, while 12 percent had “a lot” of interest in hunting, but this means that just over two-thirds of American youth have no interest in hunting. Actually, a lot more of those asked about outdoor activities had more interest in “yard work” (32 percent) than hunting.
The report’s summary says, “The relationship of Americans and nature is changing. Adults and children alike spend evermore time indoors, participation in activities like hunting and fishing is stagnant or declining, and shifts in social expectations treat engagement with nature as a mere amenity. These trends pose a nationwide problem, since overwhelming evidence shows the physical, psychological and social wellbeing of humans depends on contact with nature.”
Youth hunting seasons, programs such as the NRA’s Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) and some other notable mentoring programs have been the most visible attempts to get youth involved in hunting and shooting. Also, the Boy Scouts of America have bolstered their shooting programs and still have merit badges for “Rifle Shooting” and “Shotgun Shooting.” Scholastic shooting programs also have seen new growth and 4-H for years has offered an active program focusing on teaching youth to shoot.
These are active and hip things that help, but the cultural trend overall has nevertheless resulted in more youth living in the alternate realities of video games and social media than those who are exposed to our real role in nature.
“The Nature of Americans” reports found that: “Americans face a significant gap between their interests in nature and their efforts, abilities, and opportunities to pursue those interests. Five interrelated, society-wide forces disconnect adults and children from nature in daily life. 1) Physical places, or a built environment, generally discourage contact with the natural world. 2) Competing priorities for time, attention, and money prevent contact with nature from becoming routine and habitual. 3) Declining direct dependence on the natural world for livelihoods and subsistence allows Americans to orient their lives to other things. 4) New technologies, especially electronic media, distract and captivate. 5) Shifting expectations about what “good” contact to nature ought to be mean adults are generally satisfied with the relatively little time they spend outdoors in nature. Some groups—especially minorities, younger adults, and urban and suburban residents—encounter additional barriers, including discomfort over being outdoors alone, a lack of financial resources and a lack of social support, such as adults to accompany children outside or friends to encourage other adults to make time for nature.”
The report even found that “[a]dults and children differ in where they locate unforgettable, authentic nature. For children, nature is located quite literally right out the door, and special places outdoors and unforgettable memories often consist of nearby yards, woods, creeks and gardens. Adults, to be sure, describe nature as consisting of the trees, beaches, animals, flowers and lakes near where they lived. But in contrast to children, adults tend to set a high and even impossible standard for what they perceive to be ‘authentic’ and unforgettable nature, believing that it requires solitude and travel to faraway places, which reinforces their perceptions of the relative inaccessibility of nature.”
To bridge this divide the report recommends “transformative action.” It found that a “clear distinction emerged … between experiences in nature and connection to nature. Experiences were the actual activities people did—the time they spent outside or the trips or activities they undertook. Connections to nature were different: They involved a sense of being connected to a place, to an unforgettable memory outdoors or to a particular species. This connection often instilled a sense of responsibility and commitment toward the natural world.” As a result, the report’s authors say they “encourage the conservation and environmental communities to continue their efforts to promote a deep connection with nature via activities like hunting and fishing.”
They then stress the social aspect of a meaningful connection to nature. As a hunter, this would be that time in a duck blind with friends and family or the time spent with several kids teaching them to work a turkey or goose call. It’s the bond they make together with their parents, friends and more in a deer camp or at the range that cements their passion for experiences in the natural world in the first place. Simply taking a kid out and sitting him or her in a deer stand on a cold day in November doesn’t necessarily give them this positive and social connection to nature; in fact, it might destroy the want for more real experiences before they even take root.
This report stresses that we must find fun, communal activities to teach kids (or just new hunters) about hunting before we take them out in the field. It asks us to open up, to remember what brought us into these grand and deep sports and then to bring that approach to our nation’s youth—people too often disconnected from the natural world.