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Warden's Diary: Wild Things

By Conservation Officer Erika Billerbeck
From the January/February 2017 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
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“Welcome to Wild Things,” I told the group, “You will find that Wild Things is different than school. Here, it’s okay to get dirty. It’s okay to get muddy. It’s okay to get wet.” A big grin broke out on every kid’s face. And so began the first session of “Wild Things,” my new after-school program. 

Once a week after school, the kids and I pile into a big van and head out to nearby “wild” areas. For a couple hours, these early elementary-aged kids build forts, explore, catch grasshoppers, walk in creeks, pretend, climb trees, chase frogs, stuff rocks in their pockets and generally act like kids set loose in nature. 

Officer Erika Billerbeck: Why getting kids out in nature is so important | Iowa Outdoors magazineSound familiar? That’s because, if you are over the age of 35, you likely spent a good chunk of your own childhood doing the exact same things. When we were young and outdoors, there was rarely an adult looming over us, directing our every move. Adults weren’t always there to stop us from doing something they deemed “too dangerous,” they weren’t hovering and imploring us to keep our shoes clean, and they weren’t interfering by making up the rules to the games we invented. Our discoveries were our own—and they led to personalized risk assessment and self-directed learning. It sounds idyllic, and in a way, impossible, when we talk about it now. 

There are always exceptions, but by and large, childhood is very different for our kids today than it was even a generation ago. Quite simply, kids today aren’t afforded the same opportunities many of us had, to have unstructured, free-play, and exploration in nature. I don’t want to blame extremely busy parents who always strive to do what is best for their children. Every now and then, even the best among us fall victim to societal changes and pressures. But let’s face it—many kids are supervised almost constantly. We incessantly dish out instructions and directions to our kids. We imply that the outdoors is a dangerous place for a kid to be on his/her own. And we shuttle our young ones (often our very youngest ones) from one adult-led, structured activity to another in an attempt to enrich their lives. For many, if our children do make it outdoors, it is likely to be on the manicured field of an organized sport.

Kids in today’s society are on a technological leash stronger than steel.

You might be asking yourself why I care…shouldn’t I be concentrating on catching the poachers or worrying about the hunters in the field today? Am I wasting precious work time playing with kids in the woods? 

The short answer, in my opinion, is NO. I think it is prudent to take the long view, to see the big picture. Wild Things is my way of looking at the big picture.

Conservation officers and others who work in the natural resources field are keenly aware of the generational disparity I described above. We are aware of it on many levels: monetarily, in terms of wildlife management and land use, of changes in historical traditions as well as for the general future of our state’s natural resources. 

So what is the big picture? When I look at the big picture, I wonder where we will be two or three generations from now, when an outdoor experience for a majority of children consists of something they watched on a screen. 

Many Conservation Officers are taking the long view. They are constantly (and perhaps too quietly) trying to connect with young people in a concerted effort to engage them in outdoor pursuits through mentored hunts and fishing outings. Throughout our history, hunting and fishing has been a tradition handed down from one generation to the next. If a youth lacks an experienced adult to take them, a mentored hunt can be an excellent opportunity for a young person to learn the skills that make for a safe and enjoyable experience. Hopefully they continue practicing those skills and someday pass them onto their own children. 

There are many good reasons to introduce young people to “consumptive” outdoor activities like hunting or fishing, as well as related sports like shooting and archery. One reason (as superficial as it may at first sound) is financial. 

Currently in Iowa, everything from the purchase of public wildlife management areas, to the care of such areas, to the salaries and equipment of those tasked with protecting such areas, is almost solely funded by the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund. The Trust Fund in turn, is almost solely funded by hunting and fishing license sales and the sale of habitat fees (which currently are almost exclusively purchased by sportsmen/women), as well as money generated by the sales of hunting and shooting sports equipment (via the Pittman Robertson Act). Based on data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the numbers of license holders in Iowa has been on a steady decline since before 2009, which quite simply means the money used to maintain and protect wildlife and wildlife areas is declining as well. 

Many people who love nature enjoy using Iowa’s wildlife management areas for “non-consumptive” activities such as hiking, birding, watching meteor showers, photography, walking the dog, mountain biking, picnicking or for the perfect romantic meeting spots. They do so, often not knowing that their money (tax or otherwise), is not being used in a way that impacts that land or its wild inhabitants. That is, unless those same folks decide to purchase a habitat fee or a hunting/fishing license. 

So do I expect that every child who goes through the “Wild Things” program becomes a consumptive user (and therefore a financial contributor) of our wildlife management areas? Not really—and that’s okay. I know that it’s unrealistic (and a little bit boring) to expect that every nature-loving child move onto hunting or fishing as they get older. But I also know that very few hunters and/or anglers are born of a person with no connection to or love for nature. 

My intention with Wild Things was to start at the point where the seeds of imagination and hope germinate. I want my young Wild Things to know what it feels like to lie under a canopy of leaves and watch a squirrel jump from one branch to another. I want them to imagine what it would be like to be the caterpillar making its impossible way through a tall tangle of weeds. I hope that they will create a memory of what a sandy creek-bed feels like on the soles of the feet. I want them to know how it feels to reach down and pluck a 300 million year old fossil out of the water and hold it in their hands. 

Allowing a child to spend time in a natural place on his/her own unstructured terms is one of the most important things we, as adults, can do. The results can be invaluable and far-reaching for the child’s well being and development. This fact is evidenced by multiple published scientific studies. And I would hazard to guess that it is equally as important for the well being and future of our natural places.

Maybe by the time these young Wild Things are adults, the responsibility of caring for, paying for and maintaining our wild places will be shared more equally among its users. But if not, at least these young people will have a basic foundation for what it means to be connected to a place. And maybe those connections will foster an ethic for, and a sense of stewardship for, those wild places. The places where they learned what it is like to be a child holding the earth’s history in their hands.

Every week I am reminded that there is hope.


 

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