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Youth travel from urban jungles to forest trails

With visitors on the decline, programs such as WildLink are designed to introduce diverse new generations to national parks.

September 09, 2007|Juliana Barbassa | Associated Press Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — Jorge Castaneda kneels on a rocky ledge with a map of the Sierra Nevada spread before him.

"There aren't street names," the 18-year-old says only half-jokingly to the guides about to take him on his first backpacking trip. "How are we supposed to read these maps?"

Castaneda is with a group of young men from inner-city Oakland and Los Angeles who are heading into the Yosemite backcountry for a five-day, 20-mile excursion sponsored by an outdoor education program called WildLink.

The group's aim is to help them forge a connection with public lands that will keep them coming back, and hopefully beef up the slowly diminishing and overwhelmingly white ranks of those who spend their free time hiking, climbing, fishing or otherwise enjoying open spaces.

A 2004 survey by the U.S. Forest Service showed that 92.7% of those who visited national forests over a three-year period were white, even though the country's ethnic and racial makeup includes growing numbers of Latinos, Asians and blacks.

Overall, the number of people visiting public lands also is dwindling. The National Park Service found in 2006 it had nearly a million fewer visitors than the year before, and 14.5 million fewer than in 1999.

Experts say a range of factors are contributing to the drop in visitor numbers, from gas prices to shorter vacations. But "it may be that a certain portion of our decline is because population growth is being driven by people who are not traditional national park users," says Jim Gramann, visiting chief social scientist with the National Park Service.

A tenuous connection between new generations of Americans and public lands has potential consequences not just for individuals who miss out on the physical and mental benefits of being outdoors, but also for the future of open spaces, say those committed to fostering that relationship.

"We have to make sure the people who will be voting in the future care about wilderness," says park ranger Cynthia Ramaciotti, one of the leaders of the backpacking trip and a coordinator with WildLink, which partners with the Yosemite Institute, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. "It's not just for the individuals themselves, but also for future protection."

Her thoughts are echoed by Gail Kimbell, head of the U.S. Forest Service.

"Perhaps one of the biggest threats to our nation's forests and grasslands is environmental illiteracy," Kimbell told Congress in May, when her agency awarded half a million dollars in grants meant to connect urban and minority kids to the land.

Helped in part by these kinds of initiatives, programs such as WildLink are popping up around the country. But many experts agree it's hard to change recreation patterns and perceptions.

A National Park Service survey in 2003 showed Americans of all backgrounds gave the same reasons for staying away from public lands -- cost, distance, not knowing what to do there and lack of interest. But some differences emerged, giving a sense how cultural perceptions of the outdoors might vary among groups.

Blacks were significantly more likely to say they received poor service from park employees or that they felt uncomfortable while visiting parks. Latinos expressed greater concern than others about having to make reservations too far in advance, and about personal safety while outdoors.

Experts say these perceptions can be changed, but only through a concerted effort.

"It takes more than one week outdoors," says Gramann.

Nina Roberts, a professor at San Francisco State University's Department of Recreation, said some of the biggest impediments were access to the gear and knowledge needed for certain outdoor activities, and for newcomers, understanding English-language signs and American rules about use of public space.

For example, her own research has found that many Latinos prefer to spend time off with their extended families, but limits on how many people can occupy a campsite or picnic facility can get in the way.

"There's a myth in the broader community that ethnic minorities don't like outdoor areas, that they don't care about nature," Roberts said. "That's untrue."

Partnerships with groups like WildLink help remove some of these impediments.

Wildlink reaches young people through community service organizations, Boys and Girls clubs and schools, tapping into grants and private foundation money to cover the costs.

Before hitting the trail, the young men on the WildLink Yosemite trip learned the basics of surviving outdoors, such as how to read a compass, use a bear canister, filter water and use a camp stove. Most of the equipment was provided by the program: backpacks, rain gear, mats to sleep on.

But not every barrier can be removed. Two young men from the Los Angeles area who'd signed up for the June trip had to cancel because they were injured in a gang-related, drive-by shooting the day before, organizers said.

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