Recently, Pete Nelson opened a conversation on a social level many of us have been thinking about and working on a professional level. This conversation about the challenges facing a park whose population of residents and visitors does not reflect the shifting demographics of our larger society is keenly felt in the conservation, education and resource management professions. There is a famous quote, paraphrased, that says you will only commit yourself to what you know and love, and you will only come to know and love that which you feel is relevant to your life.
So the question Peter opened for conversation – and if you check out the comments on his January 11th post you will see he stimulated quite a conversation – is how do we make the Adirondacks more relevant in the lives of those who do not currently find it so.
Stated as The Problem this is often reduced to “increasing diversity” in the Adirondacks, a statement that tends to serve as short hand for racial diversity, but true diversity is significantly larger and more nuanced, touching on not simply racial but gender, ethnic, social-economic and ability considerations, among others . Attempting to cast a wide net semantically, and to do justice to a broader definition of “diversity,” is to consider that the Park would benefit from a stronger connection to our ever-increasing urban populations.
This is a complex and obviously very challenging connection to forge, with few if any shortcuts to success. A key indicator of just how difficult is to acknowledge that to achieve success means more than just advertising the Adirondacks to potential new users. In this context, “if you advertise it they will come” is a fallacy. To achieve a sustained and systemic shift in the demographics of Adirondack visitors and supporters we must start in the communities where those we wish to attract to the Adirondacks, and other natural and wild spaces, live. And this effort will need to take place on many integrated levels over both the short and long term.
A critical measure of success level is tied to increasing our society’s connection with the outdoors and nature, and doing so early in life and on a regular basis. The individuals who have the greatest ability to help foster an early and regular connection with nature, those who most influence our youngest generations are usually their immediate family members, either parents or grandparents. However in many urban communities the parents and grandparents have limited if any experience with nature to pass on to their children and grandchildren. The scope of the challenge is highlighted when we look for the generational guides and mentors in these communities who will reveal to the next generation the beauty, power and enjoyment of being outdoors.
A goal therefor is to address this gap and provide more first-hand experience for youth, creating over time members of the community who have a life-long connection to nature, and who can be “home-grown” role models, to pass on their experiences. This would create a peer, near-peer and inter-generational pipeline of personal experience with nature, creating within communities mentors “who look like me”, where “look” is considered from any of many perspectives.
But creating a personal/mentor pipeline is not enough.
When considering the goal of fostering a stronger connection to nature in urban populations another important question is to consider where nature-based experiences can happen on a daily or regular basis, because one does not become a climber by starting out on Everest. So a pipeline of nature spaces and access to them, emanating from these communities, must be created as well; one that leads from an abandoned lot transformed into a button park or community garden, to a municipal park, to a regional park, to a state park, to the Adirondacks, and beyond.
Those experiences of nature need to be supported on an informal educational level, stimulating a pipeline for youth that might flow from community summer programs to a regional day camp, to overnight experiences as their interest and age increases.
This informal education pipeline should be complemented by a pipeline in the formal educational system, directing interested students to the public educational opportunities, internships, collegiate programs and graduate work leading to nature-based careers.
And if you ask anyone working with this demographic, the clarion call from today’s youth (urban or otherwise) is “where are the green jobs?” Can we create a career pipeline? For example, from attending a nature-based summer camp, to working there, to interning with an NGO or natural resource agency, to an entry level job and a career?
It might seem this concept of pipelines has nothing specific to do with the Adirondacks, but by creating a much larger population with a passion for nature-based experiences, regardless of what form, we will be increasing the pool of people who will be inclined to visit and potentially move to the Adirondacks, inclined to support the Adirondacks recreationally, economically, and politically.
The great news is that many of us have been working on creating these pipelines on national, state, regional and local levels. Advancing on leading work by state agencies like DEC, and NGO’s like the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (now Adirondack Wild), we are linking the work of many organizations to broaden our impact from individual efforts into a braided stream of initiatives.
In May 2012 ESF and DEC brought together here in the Adirondacks 17 organizations working throughout the Hudson River watershed on issues related to increasing several forms of diversity at recreational, educational and professional levels. At that meeting we began the work of establishing an informal network to increase the impact and success of our collective work.
Creating a pipeline from urban communities to rural places, to wild spaces, from the harbor of the Hudson River to its headwaters in the Adirondacks is not the work of a season, or a year, but a commitment across our careers; creating a robust braided strand of pipelines, conduits running through all of our professions, through all our lives, and through all our communities. This work is complex, but there is a movement to address it, professionally and socially, and an encouragingly powerful perspective is many hands make light work. If you are interested in this work and the evolution of the network we are creating please be in touch.