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Americans losing interest in nature, replacing the outdoors with electronics

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

We Americans are apparently losing our interest in the natural world.

Instead of regularly venturing outdoors like many of us used to, recent studies are showing that more Americans are shifting away from active outdoor-recreation to sedentary indoor electronic-media-dominated recreation, a tendency recently named "videophilia."

This change in the behavior of Americans and perhaps in people in other countries has been the subject of research by Oliver Pergams, University of Illinois, and Patricia Zaradic, Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania. Their most recent research was published in a Feb. 4 article that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

After hearing about these findings on the national news and reading an article about the study in a recent Newsweek magazine, I obtained a copy of the original report from Dr. Pergams. In addition to only using visits to U.S. National Parks as a "proxy" to measure outdoor visits data that some reviewers questioned from their first similar study in 2006 they added long-term per capita (proportion of the total population) visits to state parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands and visits to national parks in Japan and Spain.

In addition, Pergams and Zaradic also analyzed the per capita sale of American hunting licenses (1950-2005), duck stamps (1935-2006), and fishing licenses (1950-2005) and numbers of people that went camping, hiking, and backpacking relative to the number surveyed.

They did not evaluate use of snowmobiles and ATVs because these forms of outdoor recreation haven't been in use long enough to detect long-term trends.

Their results showed a "fundamental and pervasive" shift away from outdoor recreation by Americans.

The decline in visitation to all natural areas (national and state parks, national forests, and BLM lands) started between 1981 and 1991 and averaged a decline of about 1.2 percent per year. The peak year in per capita sales of duck stamps was way back in 1953, per capita sales of fishing licenses peaked back in 1981, the last high in per capita sales of hunting licenses was in 1983, and per capita visits to national parks peaked in 1987.

They reported more Americans participated in camping than any other form of outdoor recreation (one out of five) but camping is also declining. Camping as a form of outdoor recreation was followed in popularity by fishing then hunting. The only slight increases in outdoor recreation were in hiking and backpacking.

Interestingly, visits to national parks in Japan showed a similar decline, prompting the researchers to suggest that the decline in outdoor recreation may also be applicable to other countries in addition to the United States.

The park visitation data from Spain were not long enough and began too late to detect any similar declining trends in that country.

The apparent cause of this decline in outdoor recreation was termed "videophilia," defined by the authors as "the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media."

The authors warn, "We are seeing a fundamental shift away from people's interest in nature" and that this fundamental shift in behavior is of significance because "it has been found that environmentally responsible behavior results from direct contact with the environment and that people must be exposed to natural areas as children if they are to care about them as adults.

"Extended periods spent in natural areas, as well as creating a role model, seem to create the most environmentally responsible behavior and increased involvement in biodiversity conservation. Moreover, as today's adult role models spend less time in nature, this generation of children is also likely to follow suit."

Increased time spent with electronic media also has detrimental health and sociological impacts. In an earlier reports the authors maintained that videophilia "has been implicated in negative psychological and physical effects, including obesity, loneliness, depression, and attentional problems. Internet use at home is shown to have a strong negative impact on time spent with friends and family as well as time spent on social activities."

One could argue from increasing health problems alone that Americans are already suffering from increased sedentary time spent indoors and less active time outdoors.

It would be interesting to determine if residents of the Kenai Peninsula conform to this nationwide trend in declining outdoor recreation.

The opportunity to experience and actively enjoy nature in the outdoors was once one reason why at least some of us came to Alaska, and the Kenai Peninsula abounds with many and diverse outdoor recreation opportunities.

Observing the fishing crowds at Russian River or on the Kenai River in the summer may suggest to some that we may not conform to these national declining trends. But this may be an aberration related to the local concentration of fish and to the attraction of other Alaskans and nonresidents seeking salmon and halibut in easily accessible Kenai Peninsula waters.

There does not appear to be similarly increasing hordes of campers, hikers, backpackers, canoeists and hunters on the Kenai Peninsula, which makes me wonder if actively experiencing nature in the outdoors is still a priority for residents of the peninsula today.

Finally, this apparent nationwide change in behavior from active outdoor recreation to sedentary indoor activities involving electronic media, especially among children, has somber implications for future conservation.

A little known Senegalese ecologist, Baba Dioum, prophetically expressed such a concern in another way 40 years ago (1968) at a meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature General Assembly: "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

These concerns emphasize the value and importance of youth outdoor education programs such as those conducted on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Ted Bailey is a retired Kenai National Wildlife Refuge wildlife biologist who has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for more than 31 years. He is an adjunct instructor at the Kenai Peninsula College and maintains a keen interest in the Kenai Peninsula's wildlife and natural history.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on our website http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on new bird arrivals or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline 907-262-2300.



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