In 2005, when Richard Louv published his influential book Last Child in the Woods, there was no statistical evidence to show that society was spending less time in nature. Anecdotally, however, Americans could see that their growing appetite for television meant less time out of doors, and as a result, Last Child in the Woods galvanized support to promote outdoor play and to ‘get children back in the woods’.
Last Child in the Woods explained that outdoor play was crucial for child development and there is a substantial body of research describing the cognitive benefits of nature-based play. As one study, “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings” explains, nature is rejuvenating for the mind.
“Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention. By contrast, natural environments are associated with a gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish. In fact, early studies have found that interacting with nature (e.g., a wilderness hike) led to improvements in proof reading, control of Necker Cube pattern reversals, and performance on the backwards digit span task.”
The proof that Americans were in fact spending less time in nature came two years later in an article titled “Evidence for a Fundamental and Pervasive Shift Away from Nature-Based Recreation,” which analyzed large data sets like National Park attendance. The articledescribed how the number of visitors to U.S. National Parks had grown for decades, and then in the late 80’s the trend reversed, and attendance began to decline.
U.S. National Parks were not the only indicators to show this phenomenon. Fourteen other data sets considered proxies for our time spent in nature, ranging from Hunting and Fishing Licenses to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail, all showed a correlated decline. These 14 data sets lost on average 18% to 25% of participants per capita between 1989 and 2007.
Louv and others identified a problem ̶ we are spending less time in nature, something crucial to child development and perhaps society as a whole. To fix this problem, however, we need to understand how our relationship with nature is changing. How our society’s cultural makeup, level of technology, population density, and time availability has changed our preferences for outdoor activities. Luckily surveys conducted by the U.S. Forest Service begin to tell this story.
According to the Forest Service’s periodic recreation surveys, the number of total participants in traditional activities such as hunting and fishing has levelled off over the last three decades (a per capita decline). In their place photographing birds emerged as the fastest growing nature-based activity, growing 287% from 1982 to 2007. There are now more birders than hunters and anglers combined. Day hiking (210%), backpacking (161%), off-road motoring (142%), walking outdoors (111%) and canoeing/kayaking (106%) have also shown growth.Looking forward, the Forest Service predicts that developed skiing, visiting interpretive sites, day hiking, birding and equestrian activities will show the most dramatic growth by 2030. Conversely, the five activities expected to grow the least are hunting, motorized snow activities, off-road motoring, floating and fishing.
One very important trend is our growing desire to learn about nature, evident in the fastest growing sector, the so-called “Nature Appreciation Activities” (e.g. visiting interpretive sites and photographing wildlife). Our time spent in wild areas is not simply to get away from the hubbub of modern life, though many people still identify this as an important aspect of their time in nature, a growing portion of society also enjoys learning about these environments. While any growth in nature-based recreation is beneficial, the desire to learn about these ecosystems bodes especially well for our role as stewards of the environment.
An inherent challenge in promoting Nature Appreciation Activities is that the most interesting and pristine ecosystems are also easily degraded, a dilemma of eco-tourism. The impacts from nature-based recreation are a function of the frequency of use, the type and behavior of use, season of use, environmental conditions, and the spatial distribution of use. And compared to traditional nature-based recreation, such as hunting and fishing, Nature Appreciation Activities often gather participants in relatively high densities. Where trampling is intense it reduces plant height, plant cover, and species richness and shifts the species composition of the community. While these disturbances rarely impact the function of the ecosystem as a whole, they can drastically change the experience, especially for visitors interested in rare plant communities or the insects, birds, and mammals associated with them.
One way that we can encourage the long-term growth of Nature Appreciation Activities is by constructing trails that provide access to a variety of natural environments while protecting plants and soil from unintended disturbance. Fortunately, human kind has a long history of trail building to draw from, and with new materials, construction techniques, and ecological knowledge we are well positioned to support low-impact, meaningful interactions with nature – with trails that tiptoe through lush vegetation or sensitive plant communities; provide glimpses of rare habitats without bisecting them; and even change our vantage point, lifting us off the ground into the forest canopy. Creating this Nature Appreciation infrastructure allows visitors to access a variety of ecosystems and biodiversity. This is one way that we can help counter the decline in nature-based recreation and environmental degradation, so that in the coming decades we may continue to enjoy the extensive benefits of time spent in nature.
About the Author
Charles Howe is an environmental scientist and landscape designer specializing in wetland ecology, ecosystem restoration, and site planning. Currently, Charles is supporting the design, permitting, and Environmental Site Assessment of a tidal wetland mitigation and habitat creation project along the East River in New York.