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Outdoors recreation growing after years of decline

August 28, 2012 at 03:12 PM

The Associated Press

Outdoor reaction growing after years of decline
THOMAS SPENCER,The Birmingham News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Two new national surveys find participation in outdoor recreation to be increasing after years of decline. That includes an uptick in the number of young people getting outside, which cheers outdoor advocates who’ve been concerned that a whole generation would grow up with “nature deficit disorder.”

The national surveys, one by the Outdoor Foundation and one by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, don’t contain specific figures for Alabama, but the findings match with anecdotal evidence here.

Verna Gates founded Fresh Air Family in 2006 with the intention of reconnecting kids to nature. The group offers a regular calendar of group outings for kids and parents, and it now has chapters statewide. Activities in 2011 drew almost 11,000 participants.

“Apparently there was a hunger for it,” she said. “It’s kind of been amazing.”

Robbie Fearn, executive director at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, pointed to a key finding in the Outdoor Foundation survey: easy access to paths, parks and green space significantly boosted the likelihood people would get outside. People living in neighborhoods where such amenities are convenient had participation rates 10 percent higher than those who didn’t.

Birmingham will earn dividends from its Three Park Initiative, which included the creation of Railroad Park, the building of a new visitor’s center at Ruffner and initial development at Red Mountain Park, Fearn said. Those projects, plus a push for a greenway network to connect them, will result in better health, happiness and economic vitality, he said.

“One of the strongest takeaways for me is that easy access improves participation, which is especially important in a state with a high obesity rate,” he said. “The national trend is reflected at Ruffner, where our attendance is up by over 10,000 annual visitors since improving access.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has conducted extensive surveys on hunting, fishing and wildlife participation across the country every five years since the 1950s. The latest survey, published earlier this month, found that hunting and fishing were up 9 percent and 11 percent, respectively. That gain came after decades of decline, though Alabama game and fish officials say they’ve yet to see that kind of increase in the numbers of licenses sold here.

The national survey also provides some gauge of the economic impact outdoor recreation has, especially when it comes to hunting and fishing.

In 2011, 13.7 million people went hunting in the U.S., according to the survey. They spent $34 billion on trips, equipment, licenses, gas, food and other necessities to hunt. They spent an average of $2,484 per hunter.

More than 33 million people went fishing in 2011. They spent $41.8 billion on trips, equipment, licenses and other items, an average of $1,262 per angler, the survey said. The licenses and taxes generated from hunting and fishing are a key support source for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Greg Lein, the director of Alabama’s state park system, said the state also has focused on access to nature as a means to reverse the decline in outdoor participation.

The state’s land preservation program, Forever Wild, has been adding public hunting land at a time when the state otherwise would be losing it as private owners pull land out of wildlife management areas. Public land is a priority because it offers access to more people than privately leased land, Lein said.

The Forever Wild program, which is up for reauthorization on the November ballot, also added land to state parks and created new recreation areas such as the canoe trails in the Mobile Tensaw Delta and scenic landmarks including the Walls of Jericho.

In the Southeast, Alabama has the lowest percentage of land in public hands. Lein said that there may be a correlation between the amount of accessible public land and the rate of outdoor participation. The mountain states, from New Mexico and Arizona north to Montana and Idaho, have the highest participation rate at 61 percent, according to the survey. They also have a higher percentage of land in public hands.

In the South, 45 percent of residents participate in outdoor activities, which is slighter higher than the participation rate in the middle-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But it trails all other regions.

The Outdoor Foundation survey also found recreational kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding to be among the fastest growing outdoor pursuits. Bow hunting also saw a big jump in participation.

The survey found that African-Americans have the lowest outdoor recreation participation rates. Just 37 percent of black children between the ages of 6 and 12 participated in outdoor recreation compared to 67 percent of white children in that age group.

Gates, of Fresh Air Family, said her organization has worked hard to break the barriers to participation in outdoor recreation. Some parents in the inner-city keep kids inside because they fear for their safety. It’s been eye-opening, Gates said, to see how cut off from nature some kids have become.

But once they get their feet wet in a creek, they’re baptized, she said. “Kids need to be outside. That is their natural habitat,” Gates said.

Wendy Jackson, executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust, said the survey provides support for further development of projects such as the proposed greenway network in Jefferson County, the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail.

“To me these studies are positive proof that our investments are paying off and the end result will be healthier children, a cleaner environment and economic growth,” Jackson said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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