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Published: Monday, 5/26/2008

Young Americans losing touch with nation's natural wonders

THE GOOD news is that millions of Americans visit their national parks every year. The bad news is that so few of the visitors are young. Our national treasures - Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and all the rest, from Acadia to Zion - remain extremely popular tourist destinations, prompting legitimate concerns that we're loving our parks to death.

Those fears may soon subside, but for the wrong reason: Younger Americans, meaning adolescents and children, don't seem all that interested.

An entire generation of kids is in the process of detaching itself from the natural world, forgoing the great outdoors in favor of patrolling the mall or sitting in front of a video game all day. If it's not a cell phone virtually glued to a youngster's ear, it's an iPod.

The phenomenon has been documented in a recent study by the University of Maryland. Researchers there concluded that the percentage of children between the ages of 9 and 12 who go hiking, fishing, swimming at the beach, or enjoying other outdoor activities declined by roughly 50 percent from 1997 to 2003.

Author Richard Louv, who wrote a book called Last Child in the Woods, calls this unfortunate development "nature deficit disorder." I call it a national embarrassment.

A 15-year-old San Francisco boy recently told a reporter he'd rather go to the shopping mall and look at "stuff" than visit nearby Yosemite National Park, where "the only thing you look at is the trees, grass, and sky."

Sounds to me like the lad has never even been to Yosemite, which is truly one of the planet's grandest places. The trees at Mariposa Grove are giant Sequoias, the world's tallest. The granite monoliths that guard Yosemite Valley, especially El Capitan and Half Dome, are among the most majestic anywhere. I'd love to take the kid to Glacier Point high above the valley, have him gaze across the expanse at Half Dome, and tell me his Old Navy store is more impressive.

Then I'd give him his cell phone back and tell him to call everybody on his phone list and describe what he's seeing.

I think it's tragic that we're raising a generation of children who live only in an electronic world. Children as young as 6 and 7 have cell phones. Many of them can name Pokemon characters but can't identify most species of wildlife.

My own two grown children, both of whom practically grew up in Yosemite, are already making sure their children appreciate nature. Park visits are routine for them. In fact, our daughter, whose love of the environment was nurtured during our 14 years in central California, recently took her 9-year-old and 6-year-old to Yosemite to infuse their young lives with respect for the world they are inheriting.

Our daughter asked us to go along to share the experience, and we marveled at Yosemite's wonders as though we were seeing them for the first time. Though it was not the peak season, there were still a lot of folks visiting the park. Unfortunately, our grandkids were among the very few children we saw.

We were more encouraged by our visit to an old favorite of ours, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Kids were everywhere, experiencing the wonders of the deep and seeing and touching the critters that live there. The most remarkable sight: an exhibit of hundreds of jellyfish that were backlit - a billowing ballet in a blue nothingness - in an otherwise totally dark room.

But we need to find a way to transfer that same youthful passion to the great outdoors. It's depressing to think that our national and state parks are increasingly becoming places for old people to go, while many of those same folks of a certain age are intimidated by the crush of young humanity at the shopping malls.

No video game can match the drama of Yosemite at sunset as the shadows crawl along the granite walls, and the bears, coyotes, and raccoons claim the night. No string of upscale shops can come close to inspiring the sense of awe that comes with standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or watching the geysers of Yellowstone.

This summer my wife and I will see Alaska for the first time, and I am sure we will marvel at the magnificent splendor of Glacier Bay National Park and the stunning vistas of Denali National Park. You can't find that at Banana Republic.

Somehow America needs to get that message across to its kids and young adults. There's an ancient Indian proverb that says simply, "Treat the earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children." Yet too many of our kids have no respect or love for just what it is they are loaning us.

So make it a point some time soon to help a youngster understand and appreciate a park. It doesn't have to be a national park. Try a state park. Maumee Bay State Park is one of the best. Or the Toledo Area Metroparks. They're all outstanding. I grew up in the city of Oregon, so Pearson remains a personal favorite.

Forget virtual reality. I want the real thing, and I want the youngest among us to want it too.

Remember the old admonition: Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. The smaller the better.



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