Oregon youths get another chance at learning outdoors

Outdoor School tries to give children common ground on conservation.

 

For decades, Oregon’s schoolchildren spent a week camping out in the woods, learning about the nature and science of the state they lived in. Groups of sixth-graders tromped through the forest, learning the difference between topsoil and dirt, identifying birds and testing pond water. The Outdoor School program, once a ubiquitous rite-of-passage, withered in the 1990s due to a loss in funding; now it’s making a comeback.

Teachers, conservation groups and parents banded together last fall to push for a ballot measure to restore funding to the program. In some ways, it was an easy ask: get more kids outside. But the fight came, as it often does, down to where the money should come from.  

Outdoor School students Evie Larson, Lillyann Samson and Maya Herring run a test on pond water during a lesson at Camp Howard in Mount Hood National Forest near Corbett, Oregon.
Don Ryan/The Associated Press

Oregon’s schools have always been deeply tied to the forests and valleys of the state. Logging, grazing and mining on public lands have long helped fund the state’s rural schools, but as the might of those industries has declined on state and federal lands, so has the cash. Much of that industry now takes place far from the urban centers, where most students live.

Rex Burkholder, chairman of the Outdoor School for All campaign, says Oregon’s rural-urban divide is especially acute because of its geography, with the Cascade Range dividing conservative eastern Oregon from the cities of liberal western Oregon. It’s also divided within those regions – depressed logging towns just a short distance from hubs like Portland and Eugene. Since the program commingles sixth-graders statewide, it can act as an interstate cultural exchange that Burkholder says is necessary for future conservation efforts. Other schools in Colorado, Washington and California are looking to Oregon’s revitalized Outdoor School program to replicate it for themselves.

“This is how we can develop a way to talk about a place that we love,” Burkholder says. “We might differ on decisions, but we all care.”

The Outdoor School program was first established in the 1950s in southern Oregon, and spread throughout the state by the 1980s. But in 1990, the state legislature shifted the burden of paying for schools from local taxes to state coffers. That resulted in less money to go around; Outdoor School was one of the programs cut. Some more affluent school districts were able to keep smaller versions of the program running through parent donations and grants, while more rural counties could not.

The ballot measure that passed in November tried to open up access for all school kids in the state. It puts Outdoor School in the running to use lottery funds, about $22 million annually to fund one week of overnight outdoor school for every sixth-grader in Oregon. But some objected to the use of lottery funds, which also pay for programs for economic development and gambling addiction treatment. The Oregon Economic Development Association said taking from the lottery was “killing the goose that is laying the golden eggs,” and two Democrat state legislators opposed the measure, saying it was a feel-good pursuit that would take away from job growth.

Even though the ballot measure passed easily in November, the future of the program depends on how much money the legislature is willing to dole out this year. That will be a challenge, since the state is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall. School districts are planning on fewer school days and less teachers to compensate for the money loss, areas where Oregon already does poorly. Still, Nick Hardigg, executive director at Audubon Society of Portland, who campaigned for the Outdoor School measure, says the program is vital to raising a new generation of conservationists and that the first year of funding is crucial to its success.

“We are lacking in opportunities that bring us together, and nature is one,” Hardigg says. “To create vehicles for that shared understanding and set of values is an opportunity worth pursuing because otherwise we're eating away at the underpinnings of our country.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News.