The rise and the fall of outdoor recreation

Maybe it’s the fear of snakes, mountain lions, or Bigfoot. Or the perceived boredom of time spent unplugged. Perhaps it’s basic opposition to exertion and sweat. Whatever the reasons, fewer people nationwide are spending time in the great outdoors.

If you like getting away from it all, though, this trend might not seem so bad. You can enjoy a hike on a remote trail or cycle down a country road without someone next to you blabbing on their cell phone or barking about some divisive political issue.

But I also see danger in the isolation — and not just the obvious risk of getting injured or hopelessly lost and needing help, though that’s reason enough to welcome human company.

To me, the greater problem may be that if very few people experience the great outdoors, then only a small number will care when our wild or rural areas are threatened by sprawling development, exotic species, pollution or other problems. And if these open spaces suffer declines, so will important community resources like clean water, clean air, fresh food, tourism dollars, wildlife, and more.

Meanwhile, a fair number of doctors, teachers, and others are concerned that children who don’t play outside may experience higher rates of obesity, attention-deficit disorders, and other maladies. They’ve written books like Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and launched myriad “No Child Left Inside” efforts.

With so many people working on the issue, I wasn’t surprised when a recent news story announced a “positive trend” in outdoor recreation. The Outdoor Foundation had released its 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report, which highlighted “many encouraging trends-especially for youth.”

Unfortunately, their “positive trend” consisted of a smaller annual rate of decline in outdoor recreation compared to the previous study. I’m no math expert, but to me, a decline in a decline is still a decline.

That left me wondering who or what can truly reverse the trend. A new website,, marks one major effort to help people find ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Partners include major outdoor gear companies and conservation groups. Sounds promising, right? When I first searched for local events, the site offered up a drumming class and a winery tour. More recently, they’ve listed a plant sale, a tree-drawing workshop, and a “mini-landfill” project to help you “learn how things rot.” Hmm.

In case fermentation and decomposition aren’t your idea of getting back to nature, consider the basic walk in the woods. For anyone with children or grandchildren, check out, sponsored by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. The site has great ideas for getting kids excited about hiking.

Of course, we don’t need the internet to lead us outdoors. Step one: fold up the paper or turn off the computer. Step two: go outside. Step three: take a nature photo or take a hike, but whatever you do, take someone with you — a spouse, a friend, a parent, a child, or anyone who hasn’t been outside much lately. Maybe I’ll see you there. And maybe the next report on trends in outdoor recreation will be truly positive.

(George Ivey is a Haywood County-based consultant and author of the novel Up River. Contact him at

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