July is National Park and Recreation Month

Orange Hawkweed, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Orange Hawkweed, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Somehow I missed June. It slipped right by. The first topic I had intended to focus on in June was going to be the weather, which seemed to be pretty unusual almost everywhere. Certainly here in Juneau it was more beautiful than we have come to expect. Then, an invasive species distracted me … in my own yard! I thought I’d write about invasive species, and I promise that I will write more on invasive plants later this month. I actually spent a couple of Saturdays trying to gain some ground against the orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) that has moved into my yard and many other locations around Juneau. I think the persistent little plants are still winning … more on invasive plants and the weather in another blog.

July is National Park and Recreation Month. I hope each of you out there will help me celebrate by getting out, getting active and getting healthier! Take your friends and families along too. National Park and Recreation Month has been officially celebrated in July since 1985. Not only does this make July special this particular July is VERY special.

In case you haven’t checked out a calendar there are 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays in July! This hasn’t happened before in any of our lifetimes. In fact, it only happens once every 823 years . . . so don’t expect to see it happen again! Another interesting fact about this year (2011) is that if you take the last two digits of the year you were born and add the age you will be this year (before the end of 2011) the result will be 111 for everyone in the world. How does that work?

4th of July Fireworks, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2005 Linda Kruger Library

4th of July Fireworks, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2005 Linda Kruger Library

We will be celebrating the fourth with fireworks (weather permitting) at 11:59 on July 3, becoming the first event on July 4th. The days are so long and it is light so late into the evening that it has to be that late to be dark enough to really see them. Unfortunately sometimes clouds do get in the way and if that happens the event is delayed for a day or two. Later, during daylight hours of July 4th there are not one but two parades in recognition of the earlier days when Douglas and Juneau were two separate cities. Juneau’s parade starts first at 11:00 AM followed by the Douglas parade at 2:00 PM. That leaves enough time for parade entrants and spectators to get from one parade venue to the other. Many of the floats and vehicle entries participate in both parades, and even some of the marching groups make their way from Juneau across the bridge and into Douglas. The Douglas parade is known for its kids on decorated bicycles and other kinds of kid entries … and both parades are know for flying candy! I dare anyone to go home without candy in his or her pockets or without sampling some of it on the spot! (Trust me I’ve tried and I’ve failed year after year ….)

4th of July Parade, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

4th of July Parade, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

At 1:30 the 2-mile fun run starts at the base of the bridge on the Douglas Island side and runners run into downtown Douglas, with finishers leading the parade into town. There is a sandcastle building competition on the beach, and after the parade there are field events for people of all ages including 10 to 60-yard dashes, 3-legged races, sack races and other fun events. All participants receive $1. (No one gets rich but it is fun!) There is a deep-pit beef barbeque (and a variety of other food booths), soapbox race finals, pony rides, a dog frisbee contest, a watermelon eating contest and live music and dancing. In other words, there is fun for all. We often walk the two miles from our house to Douglas and leave our car at home. Unfortunately again this year the weatherman is calling for showers. Here in Southeast Alaska we are used to wet weather. Folks pull on their Xtratuf rubber boots and rain jackets and head out to enjoy the festivities in spite of the weather. You’ll see the mayor, legislators, even the governor out in Xtratufs.

4th of July Sandcastle Building, Douglas, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

4th of July Sandcastle Building, Douglas, Alaska :: (c) 2006 Linda Kruger

Circling back to our celebration of National Park and Recreation Month, following the parades, many of the days fun events, the sandcastle competition, field events, concert and food booths take place in Savikko Park, managed by the City and Borough of Juneau Parks and Recreation Department. In Juneau we are fortunate to have a variety of parks and trails managed by the City and Borough, Alaska State Parks, and the US Forest Service. Residents and visitors alike will be enjoying a variety of activities—some are organized like the 4th of July events at Savikko Park and others are informal family and friend events—at parks facilities around the borough. Some will walk, hike or bike, others will arrive by car, and some will travel by kayak or boat.

What is your favorite 4th of July memory? How will you get out and experience a park or trail? Think about how to celebrate National Park and Recreation Month. Please take a moment to share your favorite park or trail experience.

Harbingers of Spring/Summer, National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors (GO) Day

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

One sure sign of spring is the appearance of Western Skunk Cabbage, also known as simply Skunk Cabbage or Swamp Lantern (Lysichiton americanus in the west and Symplocarpus foetidus in the east), pushing its way up through the snow to claim the title of the earliest sentinel of spring. Skunk Cabbage, in addition to its beautiful bright yellow hood, or spathe, and large green leaves is fascinating because of its ability to melt the snow in order to make its way to the sun. For about 12-14 days in late winter it consumes oxygen as it breaks down starch stored in its roots. This process generates enough heat for the plant to maintain a temperature of 36 degrees as it melts its way through the snow.

Hummingbirds also signal the arrival of spring when they return from their winter homes in Panama and southern Mexico and fly around in search of hummingbird feeders and colorful hanging fuchsia baskets that keep them nourished until the wildflowers burst with blossoms. Arctic terns also have returned, flying in from Southern South America and Antarctica, making the longest migration of any bird or animal, traveling over 12,000 miles to nesting sites in Alaska. In Juneau, about 80 terns gather near Mendenhall Lake and will stay in the area until they fly south again in mid-August. They can be seen through binoculars from the shore and through spotting scopes from the Tongass National Forest Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Looking through spotting scopes from the visitor center or from locations on Douglas Island or downtown Juneau we also watch bears that have come out of hibernation and mountain goats and their kids making their way into the lower elevations in search of tender spring vegetation.

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Local human residents also venture out in search of spring greens, especially the tender, succulent curled heads of the fiddlehead ferns that are so yummy sautéed in butter or added to a salad. We also see the lowest tides of the year, providing an opportunity to explore what the winter storms have deposited on local beaches and tide flats.

Spring, with summer hot on its heels, has arrived. The Carnival Spirit, the first cruise ship of the year, with many more to follow in its wake, arrived on Friday May 6 bringing 2,000 visitors into our community. Close to a million visitors will arrive by ship over the next four months. The 2011 cruise season will end when the Century, the final ship of the year, sets sail at 8:30 PM on September 24. Between now and then visitors rule downtown Juneau and frequent many of our trails and favorite places we go to enjoy good weather. On clear days they seem to own the skies as well, with helicopters and float planes a constant presence overhead. The helicopters flying visitors up and around the Juneau Icefield are known around town as the “mosquito fleet” for the buzzing sound they make overhead, often five or six in a row, as they fly from their pad near the airport up and over the Mendenhall Glacier.

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Three ships arrived on Wednesday May 11 and they made their presence known long before they docked. You didn’t have to see them to know they were arriving and you didn’t have to open your eyes and look out the window to know the fog was thick. In fact, when I did look out I couldn’t see the ships through the fog, and they couldn’t see each other. As a result, starting at the tender hour of 4:00 A.M. , they began sounding their fog horns every five minutes, blanketing the town with a loud noise that reverberated from the mountains behind the city across to the mountains on Douglas Island where I live and back again. It was like having an obnoxious alarm clock that went off every five minutes and no way to turn it off! Finally the ships docked safely, their horns silenced and the fog lifted to disclose a beautiful sunny day to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Spring events trip over each other as we transition from winter to summer. There is the Juneau Audubon Society bird watching cruise to Berners Bay, just north of Juneau, in April. We barely have time to catch our breath after the week-long Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau, also in April, when Juneau Jazz and Classics begins its three week run of jazz, blues, and classical music concerts. There are free concerts at lunch time in the State Office Building and free and reasonably priced evening concerts at a variety of venues around town, including local churches, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and the Centennial Hall convention center. Guest artists (always an amazing line-up) also perform for students in area schools and teach workshops while they are in town. Juneau Jazz and Classics also sponsors a free Saturday of fun and music at the University of Alaska’s Auke Lake Campus. This year the event was on May 14, 2011. The Second Annual Maritime Festival was happening in downtown Juneau on the same day. (It was an amazingly beautiful day!) The Southeast Master Gardeners Association held their Annual Plant Sale May 7, the same morning that brave runners dashed across the mudflats between Douglas Island and the Juneau airport in the Spring Tide Scramble, sponsored by Southeast Road Runners.

Farther north the Nenana Ice Classic has come to an end for another year with the ice going out on the Tanana River on May 4, 2011 at 4:24 PM. As their reward for guessing the date and time of the breakup 22 winners will split the $338,062 purse and enjoy the celebrity of being this year’s winners.

Looking into the future, Saturday June 4 is National Trails Day. This day celebrates America’s 200,000 miles of trails, and the boundless energy of trail supporters and volunteers. The American Hiking Society and sponsors Backpacker Magazine, Columbia, Eastern Mountain Sports, Fetzer, Merrell, The North Face and partners REI and American Park Network are hosting over two thousand events around the country. The 2011 theme is Made With All Natural Ingredients. The American Hiking Society encourages everyone to get outdoors and to invite someone new to the outdoors to come along. For more information or to find an event near you go to www.AmericanHiking.org.

June 11 is National Get Outdoors (GO) Day celebrating America’s Great Outdoors and encouraging kids and their families to explore the outdoors together. Lead by the USDA Forest Service and the American Recreation Coalition this effort builds partnerships between public and private sector interests. The focus of GO day is to influence Americans, especially youth, to participate in outdoor activities and to make outdoor recreation a part of healthy lifestyles. For more information about GO Day events go to www.nationalgetoutdoorsday.org.

How will YOU celebrate National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors Day?

Stepping Up and Taking Responsibility

Heath and wellness has been a common thread throughout my blogs and I am continuing to stitch with that thread again this month. So many things could distract me – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant melt downs in Japan followed by yet additional earthquakes occurring again this week. Add to that the near melt down of our government operations as negotiations continued right up to the last minute to determine whether there would be a government-wide shut down reminiscent of the shut downs in 1995-96. So far it appears that government offices will be open for business at least for now although debates on the budget will continue. Even with all that excitement I’ll return to my health and wellness theme.

My focus this month is on the growing number of retirees and other members of the baby boomer generation who were born between 1946 and 1964. Baby boomers started turning 65 this year and their growing ranks are causing concern partly because of the impact they will have on Medicare. This is the fastest growing age group made up of around 39 million Americans, a number that will increase to 71 million by 2030. According to the American Hospital Association 60 percent of these folks will experience more than 1 chronic condition by 2030. These conditions include diabetes, arthritis, congestive heart failure and dementia. Chronic conditions are also the leading cause of death for older adults.

Last fall I went to a meeting of our local AARP Chapter. The Alaska State Director and the AARP National President were speakers. They each addressed health care and the need to get run away health care costs under control. As they fielded questions from a very interested audience I pondered why no one was talking about the things each one of us can do to improve our own health and the preventative steps we can take to avoid being part of that 60 percent. It was puzzling to me because there is so much each of us can do to improve and insure (to a certain degree) our own health and wellbeing with many ideas showing up in the AARP magazine.

AARP The Magazine arrives in my post office box every other month with an extensive health section that incorporates suggestions for maintaining and improving mental and physical health. Examples from September/October 2010 include articles on “green exercise”, fitness, maintaining healthy cholesterol levels and immune system health. I’m a regular reader and always save – and share – these articles even after the rest of the magazine has gone to the recycle bin.

I didn’t speak up but shortly after the meeting I contacted Juneau Chapter President to volunteer to present a session at AARP Day, which will take place at the end of April. There will be sessions on financial planning, tax law changes, estate planning, and Medicare, as well as cooking, stress reduction, and computer basics, and I’ll be there to talk about how being active outdoors can contribute to health and well-being.

I plan to highlight research from a study at the University of Essex in England that found that just five minutes a day of “green exercise” could boost your mood and self-esteem and reduce odds of depression and other psychological conditions. Green exercise can include gardening, fishing, walking, cycling – basically being active outdoors in a natural setting. In addition to the benefits of vitamin D from the sun (if you live where you have sun) other benefits include enhanced cognitive functioning and increased compassion, and positive effects on blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. Some studies have also documented links between spending time in nature and longevity and decreased risk of mental illness.

Other research has found that walking can reduce diabetes incidence and lower mortality for those who have diabetes. One death per year may be preventable for every 61 people who walk at least 2 hours a week. While preventing one death per year may not seem like much I’m sure most of us know people with diabetes and it would make me happy if the diabetics that I know could avoid being a casualty of the disease…. and 2 hours a week is less than twenty minutes a day.  Diabetes often leads to the need for dialysis treatments that are not only inconvenient for the patient but also very expensive for society. In June 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nearly 22% of people 65 or older had diabetes with cases expected to increase 336 % over the next 50 years. If current trends continue one in three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes and this is not just a problem in the United States. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years. It is frustrating that effective preventive measures are available through lifestyle changes but not everyone takes advantage of them.

In addition to being a preventative for diabetes, green exercise, specifically walking in forests and other natural settings has been shown to reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness (see Rural Connections – Healthy Communities Issue, Volume 5, Issue 1 – 2.3MB PDF). Walking is an especially good activity because, in addition to having less impact on your joints than running, if you swing your arms as most of us do, walking is a bilateral activity—meaning it allows us to access the whole brain. This makes it a very grounding activity that can result in increased creativity and healthy processing of emotions. As I mentioned in my article in Rural Connections (linked above) studies of “forest bathing” in Japan – short leisurely visits to a forest – increased vigor, decreased anxiety, depression, anger, may decrease psychosocial stress related diseases, and increased levels of a cell that releases anticancer proteins in the blood that work to prevent cancer generation and development.

So, you’ve been treated to a preview of my session at AARP Day in Juneau. In addition to sharing research findings I’ll be asking participants what kinds of outdoor activities they enjoy, what experiences they can share about the benefits they observe, and what we can do locally to encourage more people to engage in outdoor activities. What do people find as barriers or impediments to getting outdoors for a walk? I know for me it is mostly making time to head outdoors. In fact, I think it is time for me to head out right now!

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

America’s Great Outdoors

“The function of protecting and developing health must rank even above that of restoring it when it is impaired.” Hippocrates

At a White House ceremony on February 16, President Obama released America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations. The report is one outcome of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. Over the past year more than 10,000 people participated in over 50 listening sessions held around the country. More than 105,000 comments were received. Twenty-one sessions were held specifically to hear from young people. In his remarks the President commented on the need to “break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us … to make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live … and to make it easier to access public lands.”

The AGO Report recommends establishing a new Conservation Service Corps to engage young people in stewardship, conservation, and recreation, and calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the source of funding for federal land acquisition and state grant programs. The President called these efforts steps to help spur the economy. He said, “They create jobs by putting more Americans back to work in tourism and recreation. They help inspire a new generation of scientists to learn how the world works. They help Americans stay healthier by making it easier to spend time outside. And they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people who don’t just make decisions based on short-term gains of any one group but on what’s best for the entire nation in the long run.”

Federal agencies provide recreational opportunities and facilities on more than 635 million acres of public land, host over a billion visits each year (USDA report on Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002) and provide a wide range of opportunities to connect to the outdoors. The Report calls on all Americans “to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore, and provide better access to our lands and waters in order to leave a healthy, vibrant outdoor legacy for generations yet to come.” Not only will these efforts leave a legacy for future generations but they also will provide important benefits today.

Between 1991 and 2001 obesity increased 75 percent among adults and today more than one in three adults, over 72 million people, are medically obese and are more likely to suffer from or develop type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last generation and today, one in five young people between the ages of 6 and 19 is obese. If the current trend continues one in three Americans who was born in 2000 will develop diabetes. The World Health Organization predicts that diabetes will rise 50 percent in the next decade, with diabetes deaths doubling in the next ten years (WHO, 2010).

The cost of healthcare is nearly 17% of our total economic output and is projected to rise to 20% by the end of this year. Healthcare experts tell us that 70% of the total cost – $2.7 trillion in 2009 – is lifestyle induced with over $150 billion a year spent on obesity-related illnesses. We also know that children are spending only half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Our public lands can play a role in reversing this trend.  “Studies show that access to the outdoors can help reverse the obesity epidemic . . . ,  reduce stress and anxiety, promote learning and personal growth, and foster mental and physical health” (AGO 2011).

The AGO Report calls for engaging young people in its implementation. In addition to the Conservation Service Corps, the AGO Report calls for improved capacity for recruiting, training, and managing volunteers and volunteer programs “to create a new generation of citizen stewards and mentors.” The Report calls for community-based efforts to increase access to outdoor recreation and a campaign to “cultivate stewardship and appreciation of America’s natural, cultural, and historic resources through innovative awareness-raising partnership initiatives and through education” to make the outdoors relevant and exciting and to “advance awareness and understanding of the benefits of nature.”

The AGO Report also calls for managing public land for long-term health and resilience in light of climate change, empowering local communities to work together to establish recreation opportunities and to restore and connect with their rich water-based natural resources, and supporting restoration and conservation of rivers, bays, coasts, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, healthy fisheries, and wildlife habitat.

I encourage you to access and read the complete report and identify ways you can help implement the Report’s recommendations. America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations can be downloaded at www.doi.gov/AmericasGreatOutdoors.

A Teachable Moment

“Perhaps the rebuilding of the body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America.” (Arthur Carhart, 1919-1922)

When I was student teaching as part of my undergraduate program in Michigan I taught Jr. High Science and Conservation Education. I was fortunate to study with Dr. Bill Stapp—an amazing outdoor educator who sadly passed on in 2001. He left behind an amazing legacy of environmental educators. It was during this period that I learned about teachable moments . . . most likely from Dr. Stapp. Teachable moments are those windows of opportunity that present themselves with unanticipated events. Often these opportunities go unnoticed. When they are recognized as an invitation to share understanding, knowledge, or experience, magic can happen. People become more open to new ideas and learning than they otherwise might have been. As a researcher I’ve seen this happen with an upswing in the adoption of community preparedness and defensible space activities following wildfires.

This past month Forest Service employees experienced a teachable moment . . . and the delivery was much different from the usual (and some would say much too frequent) required on-line training. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell suffered a heart attack on January 5. Fortunately he recognized the symptoms and quickly took appropriate action. As word spread throughout the agency, employees across the country requested information about heart attack symptoms. The Chief’s right coronary artery had become blocked.  After a stent was placed in the artery, he was soon resting at home and in the days that followed agency employees became much more aware of how to recognize the signs of heart attack and the importance of taking quick action.

Heart health is a research interest of mine, especially in terms of the disease prevention and rehabilitation benefits of spending time in nature. Arthur Carhart, a landscape architect, recreation planner and a forester by training, experienced first-hand benefits from spending time in the forest. Recent studies support Carhart’s declaration (above) about forest benefits, finding that as little as 15-30 minutes a day in a natural setting contributes to improved health.  Spending time in nature (see the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections; Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) can reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and stress, increase immune system function and improve outlook on life—each is related to heart health.

A new report just released by the American Heart Association projects the annual cost to treat heart disease to triple by 2030, increasing from $273 billion to $818 billion (in 2008 dollars). Cases of heart attack and stroke are projected to rise about 25 percent, with 40.5 percent of Americans having some form of heart disease, up from 36.9 percent today. What if getting more people out into the forest more frequently could help reduce those figures? Research suggests this is possible. The Forest Service and other public land management agencies, including state and local parks and recreation departments, have an important role here.

A University of Michigan study recently found that those who spent time walking in nature had reduced stress and improved capacity to pay attention. Recreating on public lands is one way to spend time in nature, another way is through volunteering.

In December I participated in a strategic planning meeting for the Forest Service’s Volunteer and Service Program.  I was energized and inspired by the passion that Forest Service employees from across the country have for this important program. The Volunteer and Service Program promotes opportunities for people to assist the agency in fulfilling its mission of caring for the land and serving people.

I used to think that volunteer programs were merely a cost effective way to get work done when funding to hire employees or contractors was inadequate. While this is often the case, after interacting with volunteers myself and reading the research findings of others, it is clear to me that the benefits of the volunteer program go far beyond what is accomplished on the land with a variety of benefits accruing to the volunteers themselves. Providing volunteer opportunities is truly serving the people.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service 61.8 million Americans across the country, including 8.2 million young adults between 16-24 years old, contributed 8 billion hours of volunteer service valued at $162 billion in 2008. Even through the recent economic downturn volunteerism has continued to grow. Volunteering is part of doing business for both non-profit groups and government agencies and part of a healthy lifestyle for Americans of all ages.

My personal interest in volunteer programs was piqued a few years ago when several Forest Service volunteers that I was interviewing impressed me with what they described as their desire to “give back”, “share what we know”, and to experience the “aha moments” that come with the experience of introducing children and inner city children and adults to the wonders of nature.  The volunteers I spoke with—all Baby Boomers and many retirees—described their desire to stay physically, mentally, emotionally and socially active and engaged in their community through sharing their expertise, knowledge, and passion for nature and special places.  Studies have shown that good health is the most important factor contributing to a happy retirement. The retirees I interviewed seemed to have figured that out for themselves.

Benefits of volunteering include reduced stress and depression, a greater sense of well-being, purpose and meaning, and longer, healthier lives, especially for adults 65 and older—a group that is growing.  Totaling over 76 million Americans, Boomers, including all those born from 1946-1964 and making up over 40 percent of the population, have begun to retire. This pool of potential volunteers represents both an opportunity and a challenge.

Volunteering is a healthy thing to do. Volunteering in nature compounds the health and well-being benefits experienced by volunteers. The Forest Service, along with other resource management agencies, provides a variety of volunteer opportunities and experiences that can contribute to the improved health and well-being of volunteers.  Thus, in addition to contributing to stewardship and restoration of the land, supplementing education and interpretation programs, accomplishing trail and campground maintenance, participating in research studies and other volunteer efforts volunteer opportunities contribute to improving human health and reducing health care costs.

I can’t think of a better win-win opportunity. The challenge will be whether the Forest Service and other government agencies can raise to the occasion presented by this large—and growing larger by the day—pool of potential and eager volunteers. I’ll be revisiting topics of health and nature, volunteering and baby boomers in future blogs. For now how about sharing your favorite teachable moments?

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.

p.s. — February is Heart Awareness Month. Here are some additional resources for understanding and maintaining heart health:

February is Heart Awareness Month (www.medicinenet.com)

10 Myths About Heart Disease (yourlife.usatoday.com)

From a Michigan Farm to the Last Frontier

Greetings to new and long-time friends and acquaintances,

I’m excited that the folks at Western Rural Development Center (WRDC) invited me to share my thoughts and ideas in a regular monthly blog. Since many readers won’t know me I’ll start with a brief introduction that I hope will help position me as someone who has something meaningful (and worth reading) to say about rural communities. I was born in rural Michigan and raised on a small farm. I attended a one-room schoolhouse and had the same teacher for kindergarten through second grade. Fortunately I liked Mrs. Horten and I think she was a really good teacher. Mrs. Horten returned to teach us again when we reached sixth grade . . . did she REALLY like our cohort so much that she wanted one more teaching experience with us? In seventh grade my 18 classmates and I were bussed about an hour from our farming community across town to help desegregate an inner-city school in Lansing. We were pulled from our rural homogeneous farming community and bussed to a school where the majority of students were urban Latino and Black youths – although neither of those terms was common back then, and this language certainly wasn’t what I heard in the halls and on the school grounds! The two-year experience substantially supplemented the education we received in the classroom. We each lived and experienced desegregation in a very personal way.

The long bus ride every morning also meant getting up very early since I milked our three cows before school! I’ve always explained that it was this chore that resulted in my love for the early hours.  (I’m still an early riser, often awake at 4:00 AM.) Ninth grade brought another big change – I attended high school closer to home, surrounded by working farms, and graduated in a class of 69 students – a small fraction of the students that had been in my inner-city junior high!

After graduation I attended a small private college in rural Olivet Michigan for two years, mostly on athletic scholarships thanks to Title IX. The passage and implementation of Title IX, much like desegregation, was an event and movement far larger than me but both had significant direct effects in framing my life at a young age. After a short “time-out” I transferred to the University of Michigan and after two years of classes graduated from the School of Natural Resources. While attending college I worked during the summers as a Michigan state park ranger, and it was here that my professional interest in recreation, parks, tourism and special landscapes took root. After completing my Bachelor’s degree I moved to Alaska and working as a seasonal park ranger, this time with Alaska State Parks. I spent 7 years in Haines – a community of around 1200 residents. During the “off-season” I frequently worked as a substitute teacher in the local schools. I have great stories of my time in Haines – building two cabins, and living without running water or electricity for seven years. I hope to weave some of these stories into future blogs.

After being promoted to regional manager, in 1983 my job was moved to Juneau, Alaska’s capital . With the exception of Juneau, Southeast Alaska communities are all small and rural with no other community (there are 31) having more that 9,000 residents. Only three of the 31 communities have road access. The remainder can only be accessed by water and air and only a few of them have road access to another community. My home in Juneau lies within the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest at 17 million acres. Eighty percent of the land in Alaska’s panhandle, as the Southeast Region also is known, is within the national forest, the world’s largest temperate rainforest.

Like many communities across the western United States, resource extraction activities, including timber harvesting and processing and mining, are important to the economies of Southeast Alaska communities. Tourism and commercial and charter sport fishing are important for several communities. For example Juneau hosts approximately one million cruise ship visitors from May through September every year (TravelJuneau.com). Each of these economic activities generates controversy that cycles in and out of the news over time.

Oops, I got carried away with introducing Southeast Alaska and forgot to finish MY story. In 1989 I quit my job with the State of Alaska and moved to Seattle. A big change for a small town girl! I had been accepted into the PhD program at the University of Washington, College of Forestry. I immediately jumped into my first “research” study exploring the potential social effects of off-shore oil and gas development off of the coast of Washington and Oregon. I spent an enjoyable summer learning how to design research questions and studies, conduct interviews, and develop surveys. I traveled from Forks, Washington to Bandon, Oregon interviewing local residents and visitors about the importance and value of the area to them. This experience evolved into a life-long interest and professional research focus on “sense of place” and attachment to special places. The oil and gas study was abandoned and that’s a story for another time.

When “my” study was cancelled I was fortunate to arrange work with the Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station (PNW), Seattle Forestry Sciences Laboratory, working on a social science research team called the People and Natural Resources Program. Over the past 20 years (my 20 year anniversary is this month!) my research topics have included recreation, tourism, public participation, resource planning, sense of place and place attachment, community resilience and community capacity, community wildfire mitigation and preparedness, volunteering, partnerships and collaboration, and a variety of other topics. (Published research papers are available at Treesearch by typing “kruger” into the Author box, or searching on Google.) While working full time for PNW I completed my program at the University of Washington in 1996 (I’ll write more about my dissertation research experience in a future blog) and, finding that there was plenty more to learn, I enrolled in a Master’s Degree program in Whole System Design and Organization System Renewal at Antioch University in Seattle. I finished my Antioch program in the summer of 2003 and moved back to Juneau later that year.

Since returning to Juneau I have enjoyed working with fellow PNW employees at the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Alaska Region Forest Service employees, communities on the Tongass and the Chugach National Forests, several State and Federal agencies, and Alaska Native communities and organizations. I have many stories to share and lessons I’ve learned that I hope will provide a springboard for our virtual discussion!

In closing, my current passion is individual and community health and wellness. I have many ideas for projects that engage community organizations and groups in developing healthier communities and research studies that demonstrate the importance and value of spending time outdoors and being in nature. As individuals I think we can each benefit from information that helps us make more informed personal choices and our decision makers need better information in order to make informed decisions on our behalf. If you haven’t read the September 2010 issue of Rural Connections (Volume 5, Issue 1 – 10MB PDF) please take time to read it now.

In closing, welcome to 2011! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing our conversation over the coming year.

Linda Kruger is a social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau, Alaska.