When Janet Ross decided she wanted to become an outdoor educator back in the 1960s, there were only a handful of training programs to choose from. "There were no requirements," she says. "No tests, no first aid. You just had to want to get out there and lead trips."
Ross, who founded the Four Corners School in Utah in 1984, occasionally returns to her alma mater, Arizona's Prescott College, to lecture students interested in starting their own programs. She tells them about managing a successful nonprofit with four employees and an annual budget of a half-million dollars. But she also warns: "I've seen a lot of schools come and go. Permits (for public land) are hard to get. As a new business you probably won't get any.
"It's not a way to get rich," adds the 25-year veteran. "It's a lifestyle."
Apparently, it's a life that fills a niche in the West. Since Ross took her first job as an outdoor educator in 1971, she's seen the number of outdoor programs mushroom to thousands.
She's also seen the types of programs expand. Outdoor education used to mean high school students spending a week in Wyoming with the Teton Science School. Tourists would listen to Park Service rangers talk around campfires at dusk about park geology or geysers; Boy Scouts could spend a few days tramping through the woods; and adults at Audubon's ecology workshops in the Rockies might learn to identify flowers or birds they'd only seen in books. It meant turning people on to nature and getting them hooked. Sometimes, it even changed lives.
Today, people still get hooked - in droves - but outdoor education has proven to be good at far more than just teaching evolutionary biology. It can restore wonder to burned-out professionals. It can show city kids where their food comes from. It can boost self-esteem and help troubled teenagers.
There are now programs for minorities, the mentally handicapped, the disabled and those on spiritual quests. Programs include classes that encourage young people to take up the declining sport of hunting, survival schools that attract overweight people in mid-life crises, and high-challenge ropes courses that fling foreign executives through the forest canopy.
Outdoor education has hit the mainstream, says Mikal Bellicore of the Association for Experiential Education. "Adventure programming is no longer considered some weird thing out in the woods."
Nature study and dude ranches
Hundreds of miles from Utah's Four Corners School, up in Wyoming, Teton Science School instructor Steve Archibald recalls one of his best days teaching: He was leaning on his ski poles, quietly watching kids from the O'odham tribe in Arizona charge a hill again and again. Each time, they slid back down on the skis and collapsed in a heap at the bottom.
He was about to speak up, to offer advice, when one boy noticed coyote tracks slanting back and forth across the hillside in a Z. The class started following the prints and as they crisscrossed the slope, one girl yelled, "Hey, the coyote is teaching us how to climb the hill!'
It's a lesson both Archibald and the Indian kids will remember for some time. As literature from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) puts it: "What I hear, I forget; what I see, I remember; what I do, I know."
The way people teach outdoors has been loosely stitched together over time. In the West, the first thread began in the 1870s, with dude ranches in South Dakota offering curious Easterners a sample of Western ranch life. Nature study, traditionally tied to parks, became a part of formal education with Wilbur Jackman's Nature Study for Common Schools (1918). Then the Dust Bowl of the 1930s gave rise to what was called conservation education, a practical movement rooted in resource management agencies such as the Soil Conservation Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
Next came the progressive education movement of the 1930s and John Dewey's philosophy of experiential learning, followed by the camping movement of the 1950s. Finally, with the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), outdoor education gained an added emphasis: training people to protect the natural world.
It's not a tight weave, but those threads twist and borrow from each other when it comes to educating people about the West. Students learn to appreciate a coyote track in the snow, but they also learn about what happens to the coyote population when you introduce wolves, and how to encourage dialogue between ranchers who see coyotes as a threat, and environmentalists who don't. For educators, it's a labor of love that isn't always easy.
Not advocacy, not recreation - education
Mike Blakeman, an environmental education specialist for the Forest Service in Colorado, recently experienced a frustration common to many educators. When one of the elementary school kids who visited his learning center on the Rio Grande National Forest went home and told her dad logging was bad, Blakeman had to smooth some ruffled feathers. Her father, as it turns out, worked for Stone Forest Industries, one of the largest logging companies in the San Luis Valley.
"It was a little hot here for a while," he says. "What I do is education, not propaganda, but it's a fine line."
Most outdoor educators try to distance themselves from full-blown activism, he says. Doing so allows them to reach a broader audience. It also allows more effective teaching, says Karla Vanderzanden, founder of Utah's Canyonlands Field Institute. "I'm not against people saying what's in their heart," she says. "I just feel the greatest change comes from letting people come to their own conclusions."
At the same time, outdoor educators and responsible commercial outfitters battle a public tendency to lump them with irresponsible recreationists, the kind who see rivers and mountains as settings for workouts or feats of derring-do. One response has been to push the "Leave No Trace" message. The National Outdoor Leadership School has been working with the Forest Service to teach minimum impact wilderness skills since 1991, and in 1995, it also started Leave No Trace Inc., a nonprofit group that works with sporting manufacturers to put the Leave No Trace guidelines on tags for outdoor gear.
Still, educators admit that some hard choices lie ahead. "We're painfully looking at things like group size, so that we're not on the beaten path and not beating up paths," says Bruce Fitch of Colorado Outward Bound.
Some are even calling for closure of areas they depend on for their livelihood. Ken Sleight, the owner of Pack Creek Ranch near Moab, Utah, recently asked the BLM to close the Grand Gulch Recreational Area in Utah - an area covered with Anasazi ruins - until more rangers can be hired. Says Sleight: "Edward Abbey once said, "Industrial tourism is the bane of everything!" That's true, and here I am in the tourist industry."
Many outdoor educators also complain about cultural changes that have led to the rise in sports like snowboarding, kayaking and mountain biking. Although they're glad when they can reach someone who might otherwise be participating in an EcoChallenge media event, educators say it can be hard to get those people to slow down.
"Some people just want the quick fix and the immediate satisfaction without learning about the wilderness lifestyle," says Fitch, adding that Colorado Outward Bound offered its first course for responsible snowboarding last season. "Adrenaline sports are pushing the boundaries of what's considered backcountry. You can get out there a lot quicker on a mountain bike."
Snowboarding courses aside, many nonprofits and resource agencies have long realized that to train an ecologically aware society, they must reach public school children. State resource agencies began training teachers in environmental education in the 1970s to take curriculum such as Project WILD back to the classroom. And national parks, national forests, state parks and nature centers have typically welcomed school classes. But even dedicated teachers find it difficult to charter a bus, corral 30 kids and spend a day outdoors. They are too busy and strapped for cash. Left to the education system alone, outdoor education often falls by the wayside.
Some of the Western states that have mandated environmental education have also suffered from budget chops or from a conservative backlash. In Arizona, for example, the state legislature voted last year to soften the wording of the state's 1990 Environmental Education Act, says Laura Key of the Arizona Association for Learning in and about the Environment. Money collected from a special environmental-education license plate sat unused for months, she adds, and when distributed, it was sprinkled throughout the schools on a per capita basis. No special programs on the environment were funded. "Who knows what the money was used for?" she says.
Given those hurdles, more nonprofits and resource agencies now pay visits to schools. Both Audubon and the Mountaineers, for example, have recently launched school-based programs that don't rely on expensive field trips (see pages 8 and 11).
Even in their private courses, many nonprofits are trying to reach beyond affluent Hemingway-types. Groups like NOLS and Outward Bound say they're doing more to reach out to women and to young people from both the inner city and the country. Colorado Outward Bound offers $500,000 in scholarships each year; NOLS offers funding to local kids in Lander, Wyo., and works with the School and Conservation Association and several innovative prep schools to reach minority students.
Many nonprofits are also branching out by training teachers. The hope is that those teachers will strengthen environmental education in public schools or even start their own schools. With enrollment at some nonprofits almost flat over the past few years, it seems risky to encourage more competition. But even though some educators predict growth will pick up when baby boomers begin to retire and have time to take "learning vacations," they say the goal isn't money. It's spreading the word.
Within the past five years, for example, Canyonlands Field Institute has decided to focus more on guide-training and a graduate program for people interested in becoming outdoor educators. Teton Science School has a similar program.
"What needs to happen is that Bozeman, (Mont.), Laramie, (Wyo.), and Logan, (Utah), all need a center like Teton," says Teton Science School director Jack Shea. "Once those places catch on, then the education will be for the community and can focus on problem-solving of resource-based issues."
It's something many educators now call "sense of place" education. Some programs, like the Teton Science School, already cater mostly to nearby school kids. One of the things they offer is consensus training, such as staging wolf-recovery hearings where kids act out different roles, to make sure Westerners will be able to talk with each other.
Outdoor education needs to emphasize local ecology, agrees Carol Bylsma, an education consultant in Utah. "Kids can give you the statistics about rain-forest destruction, but they don't know the name of five birds in their backyard, they don't know where the moon rises, or what watershed they're in," she says.
Bylsma believes the trend toward local programs will help: "It's not a magic act. You have to have the curiosity of a child and be out there on a regular basis."
This special issue profiles several of the diverse programs that educate people about the West today. Outdoor education has accomplished much in the past few decades, but outdoor educators continually wonder how they can do a better job.
Inside is a partial directory of educational opportunities accompanied by several profiles of outdoor education programs and an interview with Rod Nash that questions whether educators sometimes do too much. Then comes a "bad news" story that asks whether wilderness is the right classroom for everything.
Following that is a mix of essays: Terry Tempest Williams writes about how outdoor education changed her life, while educator David Carey tells us what outdoor education didn't teach him. HCN staff reporter Heather Abel speaks about the value of an urban garden, while C.L. Rawlins reminds us that you don't need to enroll in a program to explore the West: Make a church of your own backyard, pretend the neighborhood vacant lot is an Anasazi site, plant a garden. Or take some advice from Edward Abbey: "Let us save at least half of our lives for the enjoyment of this wonderful world which still exists."
Elizabeth Manning is staff reporter for High Country News. The HCN Research Fund helped pay for this special issue.
The following sidebar articles accompany this article, in a special issue about outdoor recreation: