October 3, 2008

A Natural Connection for Children


AUGUSTA - Thirty years from now, a new generation of policymakers will be asked to make critical decisions about the fate of the world's remaining wetlands, forests and streams. Many of them will never have seen such features of the natural world and likely will have little regard for their role in maintaining the health of the planet and the human population it sustains, a respected environmentalist said Thursday.

Larry Seltzer, president of The Conservation Fund, told a diverse audience at the Augusta Civic Center that the world faces new environmental and health crises as humans move further away from their connection with the natural world.

Seltzer was the keynote speaker at the "Being Outside Matters" conference organized by the Maine Department of Conservation as part of its recently launched "Take it Outside" campaign. Despite heavy rain in the morning, about 300 people - college and high school students, public officials, educators, environmentalists and others - attended the daylong event.

The Conservation Fund is an acknowledged philanthropic leader in protecting wilderness areas and agricultural lands from development. Seltzer said the environmental movement has been re-energized by the publication in 2005 of Richard Louv's best-seller, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder." He compared the impact of Louv's book with that of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which gave rise to key federal legislation aimed at protecting the natural environment.

Growing rates of obesity, diabetes and depression in children are symptoms of the growing disconnect, Seltzer said, as interactions with nature are replaced by time spent in front of the television, the computer and other electronic diversions.

It's not just children's physical health that is deteriorating, he said, but their long-term mental and spiritual health, their sense of awe and - crucially - their awareness of their role as stewards of the natural world.

"Nature is becoming a foreign country, a place we only visit once in a while, and that will never do," Seltzer said.

Instead, he said, routine interactions between children and nature must be fostered through the development of community parks, gardens and playgrounds, through family activities such as camping and boating, through the integration of environmental encounters into school curricula at all levels and through cultivating broad public awareness of the importance of the natural world.

"The young people will inherit the Earth," Seltzer said, "and we must help them be ready."

In opening remarks, Gov. John Baldacci said the growing disconnect between people and the natural environment reflects stresses within busy families.

"Families are under a lot of pressure," Baldacci said. While not all families can make the time to seek out large-scale adventures such as hiking, paddling and camping with their children, they should be encouraged to "help young people explore the wonder and the beauty right outside the door."

Baldacci said it is clear that Mainers place a high value on the natural environment, having voted consistently to support the Land for Maine's Future land conservation fund, the acquisition of Katahdin Lake and other public land protection initiatives.

A panel discussion featured Dr. Dora Anne Mils, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; Sam Hodder, state director of the Trust for Public Land; David Hales, president of College of the Atlantic; and Sheridan Steele, superintendent of Acadia National Park.

Afternoon breakout sessions included discussions of the ways families can engage their children with nature, methods for incorporating more outdoor activities into Maine schools, the need to plan walking paths, bike lanes and other nature-friendly community projects, and the health benefits for children who are more physically active in the outdoors.

Baldacci was expected to provide opening remarks Thursday evening at Bangor High School at a public talk on children's health issues by cardiologist Dr. Kim Eagle, director of the Cardiovascular Center at the University of Michigan.

More about the Take it Outside campaign is available online at www.take-it-outside.org.

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