Open season on Smokey the Bear and Woodsy Owl

Posted: Sep 18, 2019

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of time spent exploring the outdoors—being a Junior Ranger at the Cape Cod National Seashore, hours-long games of Kick the Can with every kid in the neighborhood, tracking frogs and catching fireflies in mason jars with holes poked in the lids. 

Those many outings had a long-lasting influence; they taught independence, self-sufficiency, cooperation, perspective, patience, ingenuity and diplomacy. They fueled curiosity and encouraged a general awareness of my surroundings that I’ve carried into adulthood.

And—I’m not saying it’s necessarily true in my case, but—some studies on kids and nature say that unstructured, outdoor play makes them more relaxed, self-disciplined and brighter. A study of kids with ADHD showed that walks outdoors improved their attention and concentration. Another study revealed that outdoor time and playtime in general are critical to health and development; rats denied physical play developed serious social problems later in life. Even 15 minutes of recess helps kids behave better in the classroom (maybe Congress could use a daily dose of Dodgeball).

Instead, statistics show that American kids today pick video games over bikes, 3:1. We read articles suggesting tactics to coax your kids outside to play. The number of visits to public lands have dropped in some areas, and the funding for those open spaces has dipped even further.

And now, in the midst of an attack on all things environmental in Congress, comes a most perverse move.

Last week, on a website popular with conservative voters, a prominent Republican suggested that government funding for “environmental literacy” has to go. YouCut is a website launched last year by House whip Eric Cantor (R-VA.), and now run by Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN). Every week, a number of issues are put on the chopping block and votes are cast to decide which one is the least deserving of federal funding. (YouCut promises to pursue the axing of whichever items win the polls.)

Cutting the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) “conservation education” programs for kids, specifically, could save $50 million over the next decade, says YouCut. In jeopardy are programs like NatureWatch, intended to raise public awareness and appreciation of, and responsibility for, what the USFS calls the “wonders of nature.” Also at risk is the Green Schools! partnership, which seeks to create healthy learning environments in our schools.

In the crosshairs of these proposed reductions are also two popular icons: Smokey the Bear and Woodsy “Give a Hoot. Don’t Pollute” Owl.

In his 65 years on the job, the USFS says Smokey’s campaign has been the most successful public service campaign in the nation. I don’t know how they measure that but I have known, since I was a kid, that “Only I can prevent forest fires.” I can’t fathom why Rep. DesJarlais would want fewer citizens getting this message, considering the 825 wildfires that scorched Tennessee in the first eight months of this year.

YouCut justifies its low-blow by saying that teaching environmental sustainability and responsibility is politically motivated. “While students may benefit from some of the outdoors activities these programs provide, using taxpayer dollars to generate issue-oriented advocacy among school children and college students is inappropriate,” they say.

These policymakers would do better to look beyond their paranoid notion that being aware, curious and knowledgeable about the natural world affects which lever we pull on election day. In addition to its health and safety benefits, effective environmental education has been shown to lead to better performance in science.

In its most recent Global Competitiveness Index, the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 52nd out of 139 nations in our “quality of math and science education” (China ranked 33rd and India was 38th). Its seems that more, not fewer, environmental literacy programs could help boost our competitiveness in the global marketplace.

If what we want for our young people is an economically-sustainable future, that also features clear air, potable water and healthy ecosystems, we need to teach them about safeguarding public health and protecting natural resources. Now that’s something to give a hoot about.

~Heather Hansen

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