Recently, I got to pick the brain of a longtime hero: Sally Jewell, former Secretary of the Interior under Obama, ex-CEO of REI, and general badass.  Freshly back from volunteering at a voter registration drive on campus, she welcomed me into her office at the Harvard Kennedy School.  There, she explained her prognosis on the future of public lands, outlined her campaign to engage the next generations in the outdoors, and heard about our vision for Chulengo Expeditions. 


Early in our conversation, Jewell stated that “as humans, we need to connect with nature.” Just that simple. Without getting into the weeds of what counts as “nature,” she spoke of the value of nature connection without apology or complications. Drawing on research that demonstrates the mental and physical health benefits of nature exposure, she argued that the basic human need for nature transcends race, class, geographic location, and prior exposure.

Despite the importance of connecting with nature, four trends are re-shaping Americans’ engagement with nature and public lands in particular, Jewell explained.

1.     Urbanization: most of us know that the US’s population is predominately urban, and becomes more so each decade.  But how does this migration shift our connection to nature? Experiencing nature may entail more structure and programming: we have to go out and seek outdoor experiences, in identified places such as national and state parks. In parallel, “nature” exists in cities, once we learn to look. Urban coyotes, migrating birds, glacial striations on bedrock, edible plants, restored creeks—the list, by definition, is endless.  More than simply escaping the city, “connecting to nature” may entail finding it all around us.

2.     Shifting demographics: we’re moving rapidly toward a majority-minority nation, but the culture of outdoor recreation is still largely white. Participation in outdoor sports, visitation of national parks, use of wilderness areas for backcountry travel—all out of sync with the demographics of the nation at large.  As Secretary of Interior, Jewell worked hard to expose barriers to access, which range from a lack of public transportation to trailheads to an absence of role models.  She challenged me to examine how the outdoor industry’s unspoken norms of the “right” way to experience nature can resonate with particular demographics but exclude others.

3.     Technology: as both a blessing and a curse for our engagement with nature, technology increasingly serves as the lens through which we experience the physical world.  Certain tech initiatives may bolster participation in outdoor activities, provide instant resources for field science, or offer accessible platforms for public lands activism.  Yet our conversation focused more on how technology pulls us away from the physical world. Jewell pointed out that while the average US child spends 56 hours a week in front of screens, they spend only ½ an hour in unstructured outdoor play! Building the next generation of advocates for public lands looks challenging given that lack of early exposure.  But I find hope in how many people my age are turning to wilderness travel as an escape from technology—a digital detox—and wonder if time in nature will only become more precious as we recognize the impacts of constant connectivity.     

4.    Climate change: as the past few months of natural disasters have reminded us, climate change becomes an ever-more-powerful force in shaping the landscapes we know and love, from national parks to city centers. How can we manage treasured places for future generations, while seriously digging into their power to inspire us to planetary action?

Recognizing that these trends conspire to distance most children from nature, Jewell led the Department of the Interior in launching a campaign to get the next generation outside.  As Jewell put it, “we can’t expect future generations to care for these places, America’s public lands, if they don’t feel they belong there.” The four-part campaign—“Play, Learn, Serve, Work”—begins with young children and stretches through adulthood.  Drawing on the work of Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, she pointed to unstructured play outdoors as the starting point for lifelong engagement. From there, children can build a relationship to nature through curiosity and learning, and then put that relationship to work via volunteer or paid opportunities.


Beyond the specific “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” campaign, engaging the next generation outside requires reconceiving how we as a nation imagine, value and engage with nature—while recognizing that our relationship to nature has never been constant or monolith to begin with. Noting the age-old struggles around land use, Jewell reminded me: “when you hear a rub, listen.” Relationships to land are complicated and contested, making listening carefully to what’s encompassed within these relationships critical to building a commonly-held vision.

Hearing Jewell’s perspectives on public lands and public engagement sharpened my own thinking. Given my gratitude for the opportunity to sit with her, I’m sharing these notes in hopes that they inspire conversations to come.


All photos by Tina Shaw/USFWS via Creative Commons