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)

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Lessons in Community-Based Conservation from Africa

The WRDC is pleased to introduce Ed Meyer as one of our bloggers. Mr. Meyer oversaw the Utah Governor’s rural economic development programs for 25 years before retiring to Kanab, UT. Currently he contracts with Southern Utah University to provide entrepreneur support in Kane County. He runs his own consulting firm dealing with rural incentives, serves on the Kanab City Council, and serves on the board of a local non-profit that promotes events that incorporate education, business and the arts.

Without further ado, here’s Ed.

Last fall a marvelous film called “Milking the Rhino” was screened in Kanab as part of the Southern Utah Documentary Film Festival.  After the film, I had the honor of facilitating a discussion with the film’s co-producer Jeanne McGill.  Though the film is about Africa’s Himba Tribe in Namibia and the Maasai Tribe in Kenya, the land management model they are using is one we should consider here in the American West.

First let me set the stage by explaining that the Himba and Maasai have traditionally survived largely through cattle ranching.  Though they raise their cattle in different ways for different purposes, these African tribes share a common economic bond with the West’s cattlemen.  They also face a similar challenge in that they have traditionally been denied access to adjacent lands.  In their case, these lands have been locked up in game reserves patrolled by armed guards.  Historically these guards have shot tribesmen who touch one foot inside the reserves.  Though the situation in the American West is certainly not as dramatic, ranchers are regularly being forced from public lands, largely due to environmental challenges. Another similarity is that the Himba and Maasai have often lost livestock to lions and other predators that are protected inside the reserves.  Certainly this draws a comparison to issues in the American West such as the reintroduction of the wolf and other predatory species.

In recent years, the governments of Namibia and Kenya have recognized that the ongoing conflicts with tribal cattlemen are counterproductive.  They have also realized the tremendous market for eco-tourism and the potential value this new economic opportunity could provide for the Himba and Maasai.  In order to take advantage of this opportunity, they have implemented a management tool we might consider in the American West called community-based conservation.

What the African governments have done is create conservation districts incorporating the lands within the traditional game reserves and allowed the local tribesmen to make management decisions.  Typically these decisions might address issues like whether predators that threaten the cattle should be relocated for the benefit of eco-tourists or whether they need to be destroyed, perhaps by a hunter willing to pay a premium.  Another example was whether portions of the game reserve that had previously been off limits for cattle grazing should be opened during times of drought.  The film’s title “Milking the Rhino” comes from the decision tribesmen were forced to make when white rhinos were tramping fields and destroying crops.  The tribesmen recognized that the white rhino was one of the most popular animals for the ecotourist and decided to relocate it in hopes of “milking the rhino” for tourist dollars.   While the jury is still out regarding how effective these community-based conservation districts will be, it is significant that each tribe now has a new eco-tourism lodge created through collaboration with professional managers.  The lodges provide jobs for natives and the profits are shared with the tribes.  Profits are negotiated with the tribes and, if the managers can’t come to an agreement, the tribe has the authority to order them from the land.

I’d like to ask the readers of this blog whether they can share examples of how a similar model has been tried in the American West.  Before you answer, let me clarify my request.  I’m not looking for examples where the federal government has created advisory groups to provide input or even grassroots projects the federal government allows to occur because they are consistent with their management plan.  What I am looking for are examples where the federal government has actually turned management of federal lands over to groups of local stakeholders to manage for some purpose.

I understand that there are reasons it would be difficult to implement community-based conservation in the American West.  I expect to hear all kinds of reasons why it can’t be done.  Quite honestly, I’m tired of hearing why things can’t be done.  What I hope to see are examples where something similar is being done and suggestions of what might have to occur to make it happen given our unique public lands models.

If you would like to learn more about the Himba, the Maasai and community-based conservation, I encourage you to visit http://MilkingTheRhino.org.  A related site is www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/milk.html where you can download an outstanding study guide based on the video.  Finally, if you would like Jeanne McGill to speak at an event, please email me at ed@kekanab.com and I can provide contact information.

Images used with permission granted by the filmmaker.

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.