Are We Losing the Wild Outdoors? And at What Cost?

Years ago while I was working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger (Naturalist) at Grand Canyon National Park a woman approached me asking whether we had mountain lions in the park. I said we definitely did. She was appalled and angrily demanded to know how the government could allow such animals to run free in a park.

Our family lives “out in the country” and are sometimes asked “aren’t you afraid to live out there so far from town, (half a mile) with all those coyotes, snakes and stuff?” Well, all those “wild animals” are the least of our fears! What I really want to know is why my friends aren’t scared to death living in town surrounded by so many weird and dangerous people.

The thing is, questions like this are indicative of a serious problem with today’s human population. They simply have little if any experience in the outdoors. When I was a kid, back in the days of dinosaurs, most of my waking hours were spent outside. We roamed and rambled through vacant lots, followed trails into the woods, found animal tracks, watched clouds form castles in the sky and gazed awe-struck at the star-studded night sky.

But no more. Parents and teachers are completely freaked out at the very idea of kids making treks into the great outdoors. They might get chiggers. It’s too dangerous, and some teachers – bless ‘em – think blood is blue, and there is way too much legal liability involved to allow kids to go on field trips. They might trip and scrape their knee and get a deadly MRSA infection. Or they’ll get poison ivy and transmit it to the entire student body, faculty and staff. (It’s neither contagious nor infectious and can’t be spread from person to person from the rash, oozing or not!)

Have your kids been on a hike away from civilization – ever? Have you sat with them and watched the sun set over a beautiful lake? Have you laid on your back and watched the stars, or seen distant heat lightning, or heard the hoot of a great-horned owl? Do you let your children play in the fields and forests? Or are they always cooped up in the artificial, temperature and humidity-controlled environmental chamber you call home with their eyes glued to a cell phone or TV?

One of the things that worries me is that what we don’t experience, we can’t understand and will never treasure. No wonder that our cities do little or nothing to preserve dark starry skies. No wonder that our forests are disappearing and the very future of municipal, state and national parks and monuments are in dire jeopardy.

The new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, is proposing massive reductions in the size of several National Monuments in the West, and radical increases in mining and oil drilling in what were, until recently, preserved and protected areas. The man is a grave danger to all we treasure in the outdoors.

At the rate we’re going, Yellowstone National Park will one day be reduced to a blacktop parking lot intermingled with condominiums, coffee houses, fast food restaurants, and Old Faithful geyser will be squeezed into a patch of viewing area 50 by 50 feet square.

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club said, many years ago, that we ought to go to the mountains to “get their glad tidings.” He suggested that if we did, our cares would fall from us “like autumn leaves.” No mountains? Just go outdoors and take your kids with you. Give ‘em a break. Then, perhaps there is a chance that we’ll get a whole generation back on track so they can understand and preserve wide open spaces, the sky, the wind, flowers, bird songs, sunsets and clouds that are critical to a balanced, satisfying and stress-free life. Up to now, we have plenty of them in the fields and forests of East Texas. But, can we keep them?

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.