By Dan Kidder
We have a decline in those utilizing the outdoors, especially among the young.
In the years following World War II we saw a dramatic increase in the number of people spending time camping, hiking, and participating in outdoor activities. This led to an increase in the number of state and national parks and forests, providing people a place to engage in the outdoors and to preserve wildlands for future generations.
In recent years, the number of people who participate in these activities has declined. This has placed a strain on budgets for the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and many other state agencies tasked with acquiring and maintaining these natural areas for outdoor recreation. Several studies have demonstrated that this decline is highest among youth.
Reasons given vary from competition with technology, to the high cost of gas and gear, but the end result is that fewer people are taking their kids camping or hiking than they were in the 80s and 90s.
Enter the Boys Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts. Both of these organizations have been providing outdoor activities to youth for more than a hundred years. They take children camping and hiking, they teach them woodscraft, love for nature, and instill in them basic skills to continue the outdoor heritage.
Now, the Boy Scouts have been in the news quite a lot lately, and whether you agree or disagree with the political views of the organization, it is hard to argue against the results the organization brings to the lives of the young men who participate.
There have been more than 114 million Cub and Boy Scouts in the organization’s 105 year history. 118 of them have been in outer space. Hundreds have served in Congress, and a few in the White House. The Boy Scouts of America not only build strong outdoor skills, they teach values that are also on the decline in this country; values such as honor, integrity, courteousness, helpfulness, compassion, teamwork, and many others.
Scouts learn how to enjoy and protect the outdoors, and they carry that knowledge with them as they get older, passing it on to their own children.
Many of the reasons that we have seen a decline in our outdoor activities is that people don’t always have a safe non-judgemental environment to learn how to enjoy the outdoors. Gear is expensive, and purchasing it without understanding what to get or how to use it can be a daunting concept. Scouting gives young people the opportunity to learn about the outdoors without necessarily having their own gear. Many scouting groups have collected their own kit over the years, so that those new to the outdoors can use the gear owned by the troop or pack. This is why I donate my older but still usable gear to a local scout troop when I upgrade.
Another impediment to enjoying the outdoors is knowledge of places to go. I will be the first to say that the National Park Service and the Forest Service do a terrible job of providing information on their parks. Going with a group can help you learn about the areas from those who have already been there. It can provide you a collection of locations for spending time in the outdoors without the disappointment that can come from having insufficient information.
But most importantly, it exposes young people to how enjoyable and exciting the outdoors can be and builds within them an appreciation for our nation’s wild lands.
Scouting gives children important interaction with a team or group, rather than through a computer or device. It places them in situations where they have to work together to overcome difficulties. It challenges them, and stretches them, and makes them confident and sociable. It makes them stronger and better members of society.
I used to work for a Member of Congress and each member is permitted to make a set number of recommendations to the US military academies. Each year our office received hundreds of applications for these precious recommendations, and each year we had only a few dozen to award. Our first criteria, was an automatic recommendation to any Eagle Scout. Once the Eagle Scouts had received their recommendations, then any of the few remaining spots were awarded based upon the application sent in. The Congressman’s thinking was that if they could accomplish the work and dedication to become an Eagle Scout, then they had what it takes to make it at West Point. Time proved him to be right.
The sad reality is that not every child has the opportunity to participate in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and even these organizations, which have been staples of American society for more than a century, are seeing their numbers decline.
They have fewer scouts but they also have fewer scout leaders. Some churches and civic groups have had to disband their scouting programs, not for lack of scouts, but for a lack of adults willing to volunteer their time to running these vital programs.
Because of this, there is a greater need now than ever before to participate in scouting. Some ways you can participate are to become a scout leader. You don’t have to be the Scoutmaster, but being involved in outdoor activities with 25-50 young people is more than a one-person job. The Scoutmaster can use all of the help he or she can get. Find a local Scoutmaster and share your desire to get involved and help out.
Another way is to put your children in scouting. As much as you may desire to take them into the outdoors on a regular basis, you can’t hope to provide them as many opportunities on your own as they would have with scouting. As a Boy Scout I hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. I rode a bicycle 250 miles from Yuma, AZ to San Diego, CA. I spent a lot of time with my grandfather in the outdoors, but I spent even more time with the scouts. It gave me the appreciation of the outdoors that I have today.
Two more ways you can help are to donate money and gear. All scouting groups are constantly on the lookout for donations of cash and gear. Scouts seek to serve all socio-economic classes. Many activities require funds paid by the scout, but not all scouts can afford to participate in these activities. By donating cash, you may be helping a child who would not otherwise be able to participate to enjoy the same wonders as their fellow scouts who can afford to pay their own way. By donating your gear, you can help provide equipment for scouts who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to use quality gear on trips. The more money and equipment you donate, the more children who can enjoy the valuable lessons of scouting.
I spent many years of my life in the foster care system. I didn’t have the same opportunities that many children growing up had to learn about the outdoors. I had no parent to take me camping, though I spent many days in the outdoors with my grandfather when I could. If not for the dedication and effort of scout leaders, I would have missed out on many opportunities to learn and grow into the lover of the outdoors that I am today. There are tens of thousands of children in that same boat right now.
Your sharing of time, gear, and money can help provide these children with outdoor opportunities. This is a win-win-win for everyone. We teach children who might never have another chance to learn about the values of honor, integrity, teamwork, and kindness, preventing them from filling our prisons later in life. We teach them a love for the outdoors that will stay with them for generations, helping to increase demand on our wild lands and supporting parks and forests so that we can continue to enjoy them. And finally, we can get our children off the couch, off the iPad or Playstation, and instill in them a love for the outdoors that we also share; a love that they will share with their children. Scouting is more than just a political football to be kicked around, it is a real asset in the lives of young people in this country, and we need to do what we can to support its mission.
To find a local scout troop in your area, contact the Boy Scouts of America at beascout.scouting.org or the Girl Scouts at girlscouts.org. Make a difference in the life of a child and also help preserve our outdoor heritage and enjoyment for generations to come. We still need scouting today; perhaps more than ever.