'Threshold' nature for urban kids

Mickey Fearn wants you to put yourself in Kenny's platform shoes.

Kenny -- a black teenager from Portland with no wilderness experience -- was told to bring warm, comfortable clothes for his first backpacking trip. So he wore what he had: a full-length corduroy coat and -- yes -- platform shoes. As a result, the following three days of hiking and camping were especially difficult.

That kind of intense immersion isn't the best way to introduce poor city kids to nature, says 62-year-old Fearn, who helped with Kenny's trip as a grad student and now serves as "manager of community connections" for the Seattle parks department. "It's work. You can remember how pretty it was, but you also remember moments when you're eating Cheerios mixed with Tang, because you burned your bacon."

If kids like Kenny experience the wild as unpleasant or unfriendly, they may never go hiking again. And if they never learn to value the natural world, they're unlikely to fight environmental injustices -- pollution, say, or the lack of safe green spaces -- in their own communities.

That's why Fearn, who is black, has spent much of his 42-year career as a parks professional advocating for "threshold experiences" -- close-to-home outings that allow urban kids to gradually get comfortable with nature. Fearn's favorite example is Outdoor Opportunities -- nicknamed O2 -- which reaches teens at three Seattle parks and through the city's 27 community centers. It offers weekly workshops on green topics like solar energy, service projects such as building trails and planting trees, and a variety of outdoor trips -- all for free.

Fearn is low-key about his role, even though it's substantial. He didn't create O2; he's not the guy taking kids outside. But he's trying to encourage the creation and coordination of more such efforts, to reach more kids. "The power I have is the power of influence," he says. "I'm African-American, I've been poor, I've worked as a parks professional, I've worked as a policy person, I've worked for the city's race and social justice initiative. I understand the problem comprehensively, I can articulate it to people, sell (the solutions), and get them going."

And people are listening. As a state parks commissioner, Fearn helped create Washington's No Child Left Inside program, which gave programs like O2 $1.5 million in 2008. Inspired by Fearn, Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service's Pacific West Region, included a campground in the redevelopment of the Presidio of San Francisco, so that urban families -- even those without cars -- can spend a night outdoors and enjoy a campfire talk.

--Sandra Tassel, freelancer, and Sarah Gilman, HCN associate editor

A rediscovered renewable

Life, to Eric Jacobson, is "happiness, joy and lots of little hydropower plants."

At 53, he's worked on about 40 such plants in Colorado and nearby states. He's tackled other eco-friendly energy projects as well, running a string of natural-gas power plants for decades and piping the excess heat into a successful hothouse tomato business. But microhydro holds a special place in his heart.

"Whenever I had a couple knuckles in my jeans (spare time or dollars) I bought hydro plants, sold hydro plants, and developed them," he says.

Jacobson sees microhydro as a straightforward way for mountain communities -- where solar and wind can be unreliable -- to reduce their electricity's environmental impacts. Microhydro requires two basic ingredients: water volume and pressure. If a project is short on one, it needs more of the other. Fortunately, mountain water supplies often flow from substantial elevations at high pressure.

Many communities can install microhydro turbines on existing infrastructure –– pipelines carrying water to treatment plants, for example -- without new impoundments or substantially different water rights. The water has already been captured, so the impacts tend to be minor. Jacobson thinks "it's almost a social responsibility to harness this power if the impacts are already there."

In the absence of a dam or pipeline, a "run of the river" system, in which water is diverted from a creek or irrigation ditch and returned to the channel downstream, is generally used. If poorly managed, these projects can deplete waterways, harming fish and other aquatic life. But overall, the impacts remain relatively minor. "There's no perfect zero-impact technology," Jacobson says. "Small hydro is absolutely competitive with solar and wind for reducing impacts to a bare minimum."

With state regulations steering Colorado away from carbon-intensive energy, communities are eager for alternatives. Aspen already taps two small hydro plants, and is working to add four more. Rural Hotchkiss, with only 1,100 residents, may revive a microhydro project that's been idle for over a decade. The Colorado governor's Energy Office wants to ease permitting and financial hurdles for projects smaller than a couple megawatts, and truly tiny installations -- plants on backyard streams that might power a single house -- are catching on.

This isn't new territory for Colorado: One of Jacobson's plants is probably the country's oldest working hydropower project. The Ouray plant houses two turbines of similar size: one from the 1990s, the other from the 1890s. The latter is more efficient. To Jacobson, that's a metaphor for how national energy policy wandered off track over the last century. "We've fallen backwards, I think."

--Terray Sylvester, freelancer

Innovator tidbit: Maria Gonzalez Mabbutt, a former immigrant farmworker, helps lead a nonpartisan campaign that has more than doubled Latino voter registration in Idaho in the last six years.