The world will be a very different place when my boys are grown up. There might actually be fewer protected public land, fewer animal species, and very different weather. Some of our National Parks, if they even still exist as parks, will be quite different than they are now. We need to take action now, but we also need to start on the next generation of conservationists. To make sure that happens, I’m raising my boys to appreciate nature and animals from an early age.
It’s easy to get fatalistic about the world. The ice caps are melting. Animal species are disappearing every day. There are more severe weather events than ever. But we don’t have to just live with it. If we want to change the world, it starts now. Not content to just make a mark now, concerned parents have an obligation to raise well-educated and engaged children who will also make a difference. It all starts with getting kids out into nature and cultivating love for the outdoors and all types of life early.
The National Parks are one of America’s greatest treasures, called our “greatest idea” and alternatively defended and attacked by administrations. The majesty and grandeur of the parks is inspiring to all, but children will be especially entranced by the awe-inspiring scope of nature. However, the parks might be quite different by the time my kids grow up. Yellowstone’s geysers are powered by thermal energy that stems from tectonic movements deep beneath the earth. This movement is predicted to result in a massive volcanic eruption at some point very soon. The ecological balance there is also on the edge. Things are trending up after the reintroduction of wolves and the protection of the Buffalo within the park’s confines, but these successes are sadly exceptions rather than the norm.
Up further in Montana, Glacier National Park’s glaciers are quickly disappearing. They may be gone as soon as 2020 according to experts. Massive crowds in Yosemite are causing degradation to the ecosystem there as well, eroding the landscape protected nearly the longest within one of America’s first National Parks. Around the Great Lakes, invasive species introduced by cargo ships have decimated the natural fish species and are causing frequent algae blooms that poison fish, birds, and people alike. Many of the parks and monuments are in danger of disappearing of being irreversibly changed, losing their character.
It’s up to us to change the direction things are heading. When the buffalo, once over 30 million strong in North America were decimated down to a single herd of under 300, conservationists like George Bird Grinnell answered the call and stepped up to protect these creatures. Now, there are again over a million across the country, and they are so plentiful you can find burgers at many restaurants. Efforts to protect the last of the Redwoods in California resulted in expanding numbers of the trees and even farms in other environments. Conservation works, it just takes work.
I’m raising my kids to be conservationists. Even though they aren’t even two yet and can’t hike 1/10 of a mile, we’re starting early. Within two weeks of their birth, we took them on a hike around a nearby lake. Just after their six-month birthday, we took them for a day hike on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Technically, they hiked a six-mile trail in the middle of the desert in Joshua Tree a couple of months before they were even born. I believe in exposing them to nature early and often to foster a love of the great outdoors.
It’s not only about seeing nature and being a passive participant in a walk through the woods. It’s also important to demonstrate respect for nature and appreciation for it. We take hikes frequently in the State Forest right near our house. A great person has provided bags and those extendy arm grabby claw things for picking up trash. We show the boys how to use these and that not only do we love the park, we leave it cleaner than we found it.
The boys haven’t had much chance to see the country’s National Parks yet, but we plan to visit many of them together. We recently visited Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon, as well as Grand-Staircase Escalante. We didn’t get to Bear’s Ears, the center of recent controversy over the presidential administration massively reducing the protected area and I really wish we had. Now, the boys won’t ever have the chance to see this land before it is changed. Even the parts of Grand-Staircase won’t be the same when we return with the boys. It feels like if we don’t get to many of these lands now, they might not be there when the boys are older.
Conservationism tends to also include animals, not just land. To that end, and because it tends to be easier to get them excited about animals, we’re also teaching them about respecting and loving fauna. A dog at home helps since we can have daily lessons about gentle touching, why we don’t feed him people food, and why he does his business outside. Even more important though is teaching them about nature and why animals there are different but deserve our appreciation. Trips out in nature are good opportunities to point our birds, small mammals, occasionally larger ones like deer, and sometimes frogs and turtles. These are great opportunities to explain why we look at them from a distance and the great things they do.
It can be hard to find animals out in the woods all the time though, so to really round out the boys’ exposure to the animal kingdom, we take them to zoos and aquariums. They’ve already been to three zoos and two aquariums. During these visits, they have seen hippos, sharks, a variety of fish, lions, elephants, and more. Not only do these animals impress, they also leave a lasting impression that helps tie lessons about the importance of preserving nature around the world to the animals they’ve seen. It’s much more effective to explain the importance of protecting the savanna of Africa when they’ve seen lions and giraffes up close.
Really, it’s all about getting them up close and into nature to start building a love for it. I grew up with frequent visits to nature with hikes, dog walks, and visits to animals both near where I grew up and to different destinations around the country and world. These experiences had me find a passion for the outdoors and seeing new and unique natural landscapes and parts of the world. I’m now passing that down to my boys with a similar amount of experience early on with nature’s splendor.