Losing ground: More people means more houses, leaving fewer places to explore

The Greeley Tribune – October 14, 2007
By Dan England,

Losing ground: More people means more houses, leaving fewer places to explore

Many of the places where kids could go explore, especially in the last few years in Greeley, were paved with asphalt and covered with houses. Snake Mountain, a small pocket of green where kids used to go sledding, was eaten by Wal-Mart. Large chunks of land beyond 59th Avenue between U.S. 34 and 4th Street are now subdivisions. And what's left is private land, signed and posted, either ready for sale or fenced away from the pubic.

Larry Rogstad still visits the place where he grew up in Oklahoma. But he doesn't go clamming in Quail Creek anymore. It's now a subdivision.

Gone with the wind

As the chances to explore outside are lost to subdivisions and well-lit streets, the idea of traveling to a world where cell phones don't work, where the Internet isn't available and where dinner might be a hot dog over a fire seems increasingly foreign to families.

"A lot of it, quite frankly, is just convincing kids that they want to go outside," said Leslie Thibodeaux, camping director for the Boy Scouts of America Longs Peak Council in Greeley.

After a downswing, Longs Peak Council has enjoyed a recent uptick in kids camping with their families. Most of them have never camped before, but Thibodeaux said the premiere place, at Red Feather Lakes, absorbs the intimidation many feel about spending a night in the woods. The major hurdle these days is the concern that comes from that unfamiliarity.

Lynn Brunelle, an author who once worked as a writer for Bill Nye, the Science Guy, recently released a book, "Camp Out," that encourages parents to take their kids camping by offering ideas for fun games, treats and activities. She said in a phone interview that once kids are exposed to the outdoors, they tend to enjoy it. But they may need to be convinced more than ever before.

"I've never met a kid who didn't think it was cool to be outside," said Brunelle, who has two kids ages 3 and 5 and takes them camping. "They might protest at first, wondering where their video games are, but my goal was to show how fun and cool and amazing it is to be outside."

Rogstad gets discouraged at the way time is spent, such as a structured rafting trip up the Poudre Canyon. Families get on a bus, get off, get on the raft, float down, get off and get on the bus to go home. It's rare when kids are allowed to explore and discover something on those trips, he said.

Yes, Colorado offers more chances to enjoy the outdoors than many other states, but growth has taken away more of the unstructured, casual wandering outside, Rogstad said. In the last year, in fact, Rogstad wonders if even the state wildlife areas offered by the Division of Wildlife are far too packed with regulations to make it the kind of trip he has in mind. Those areas need to be regulated because of the hunters and hikers, and yet the rule might take away yet another chance to explore.

"We need to look at places close to home where we can just get out and be outdoors," Rogstad said. "If you don't have that unstructured time, you won't cultivate those interests that eventually become a passion."

The outdoors offers a wonderful way for parents to bond with their kids, said Bob Hewson, executive director with Colorado Youth Outdoors. The mission of CYO is to bring kids and their parents together. Encouraging kids to enjoy the outdoors is secondary.

"As I look at our family, that's what bonded us," Hewson said. "If we thought rebuilding car engines was a better venue for bonding parents with their kids, that's what we would be doing. But until someone demonstrates a better way than the outdoors, that's what we'll do. There's a desperate need today for that to be taught, and not just because kids are losing touch with the outdoors, but they're losing touch with their families."

Preaching to the choir

While there's a growing urgency to address kids losing touch with the outdoors, the idea appears to intrigue mostly those already in touch with nature, including wildlife officials and environmental leaders.

"Most still have never heard of the idea," said Zoe Whyman, community relations manager with the Fort Collins Natural Areas Program. "Just making people aware of the problem is our main goal."

Whyman is part of a group of organizations in the Fort Collins area dedicated to helping kids get in touch with nature and the outdoors.

Parents think their children are getting time outdoors when it really might just be time outside playing soccer on a bluegrass field.

"This is the easiest thing in the world, and yet it seems to be the hardest thing," Whyman said. "We're not saying go somewhere and spend money and enter an organization. We're saying stop doing all that and just go to a nature area and muck around."

Activities such as dance lessons, music lessons and soccer games have replaced that time outdoors, another reason why Bulger, the state hunter education coordinator, schedules structured Saturdays teaching kids how to hunt. It seems to be the only way to reach parents.

"I raised four kids, and I know the challenges they've got," Bulger said. "How do they fit in something with the 42 other things they've got their kids doing?"

Sometimes, when something is right in front of you, as the mountains are every day the sky isn't grimy with ozone, the natural inclination is to believe you'll go next weekend, until it never happens, Hewson said.

"A lot of people drive out of state for what we have here," he said. "But it's way too easy. We take it for granted."

And adults seem to have lost touch with the outdoors along with their children because they're too busy to drive an hour or two to enjoy it, said Ray Tschillard, director of the Poudre Learning Center, which serves school districts in Windsor, Eaton, Johnston, Milliken and Greeley by offering outdoors classes.

"You'll hear adults say, 'Gosh, I don't know if I should go down there, I might get muddy,' " he said. "Or they're worried about bugs. It's really obvious they've never been exposed to something like that before."

Attempts to solve problem rebuffed or not enough

There's a piece of farmland on the outskirts of Greeley that makes Karen Scopel's heart ache every time she drives by it. It would be the perfect spot for children to explore.

She's doubtful the city will ever get the chance to buy it.

"I drool over it," she said. "I've got a willing seller, but we can't pull the money together to even go get a grant. I don't know how much longer they will hold out."

The city of Greeley and Weld County both tried to get a sales tax approved by voters to purchase open space. Twice the effort failed in Greeley.

Weld County and Greeley residents don't want to pay money for open space, she said. The movement sparked by Louv's book may change that, but as others admit, it's still not a priority for most residents.

Scopel said property owners were concerned that the government was going to move in and snatch private land. She can still say "fair market value" in her sleep, but it didn't seem to matter.

So what about grants from organizations such as Great Outdoors Colorado? Well, those require matching funds, and Greeley can't even scrape up the money for that. And there was talk of putting open space in the city's 2A improvement sales tax, which brought the city the Ice Haus and the FunPlex, among other amenities, but there was too much concern that the open space might mean residents would reject 2A.

That's why Scopel said she believes a citizens' initiative, like the one that helped bring an open space fund to Fort Collins, will be the only way Greeley will have the kind of natural, open areas Fort Collins enjoys. That tax was approved in 1992 and continues to fund a Natural Areas Enhancement Program. In the past 13 years, Fort Collins has nearly 30,000 acres of natural areas partly as a result of it.

"The focus was to really preserve these areas for wildlife and native plant species before they were developed," Whyman said.

Access to natural areas is one of the biggest challenges in getting kids out to explore and connect with the outdoors, Whyman said.

Greeley gets a little open space from developers when they're finished with the land. That's nice but Scopel said it's also kind of haphazard, with mostly just leftover green belts surrounded by houses.

"It really doesn't get us very much," she said, "and it's way better to get stuff way ahead of development."

The vision of former Greeley resident and public school teacher Josephine Jones, and her willingness to leave her land and house to the city in her will, got the city probably its only real natural area, a park just north of U.S. 34 with a gravel trail, native plants and a small pond. Runners love the area, and there's a small playground, as well as places to explore. Glenmere Park is another small spot, with its famed black-crowned night heron nests and bird island, an island the city spent hundreds of thousands to improve a couple years ago.

Greeley's attempt to bring nature to its residents, however, are commendable but a little misguided, said Rogstad, the DOW's wildlife officer.

The Poudre Trail is a great place to watch wildlife, but it's also a concrete strip surrounded by private property or fences that discourage or even ban exploration off the trail. The development in that area, which includes the trail, fragment the cottonwood riparian habitat, one of the most important and one of the most threatened, habitats in the West, Rogstad said.

Rogstad's even found far more roadkill by the Poudre Learning Center, with its paved roads leading to the school, than he did before the building was established.

Tschillard, director of the learning center, agrees Greeley needs more places like Josephine Jones and fewer traditional parks.

"That Frisbee Golf park is about the only place where you can just show up," he said. "Kids can't just wander over and start playing baseball anymore. They can't wander over and just start having fun.

"Most of the parks here really are just manicured lawns. So we still need that place where you can just explore."

Rogstad is encouraged by plans for a new, 90-acre fishing facility at 35th Avenue and the Poudre River. It will be a while, two years to be exact, before it opens, but the city of Greeley spent staff time to develop it and got a DOW grant to build it, and the plans are to make it a natural area, not a place covered in bluegrass and plastic slides.

The movement to get kids in touch with the outdoors

Five years ago, before Louv's book, a plan to organize a hike just for kids would probably get strange looks.

Now it's efforts like Kids in the Woods, led by Poudre Wilderness volunteer Dave Cantrell, which gives kids who may not otherwise have the opportunity a chance to walk in the wilderness under the guidance of experienced hikers. The hikes are only a part of what many Fort Collins organizations hope will be a movement to spread the ideas of Louv's book and, more importantly, do something about it.

"The time seems to be right to get something going," he said. "We want to let kids have a good time out in the natural world."

The Poudre Learning Center is taking that mission seriously, and though many times students from the area's school districts aren't too sure at first about the wild place that surrounds them, by the end, they seem to buy into it, Tschillard said. Projects, such as planting trees and watching raptors, are mixed with classes about the world that is getting their shoes muddy.

"One student was asking for something to mark a spot," he said, "and I finally asked why he needed it, and he said, 'I want to check to see how my tree is doing next year.' "

Even more structured experiences, such as camping in Red Feather Lakes with the Longs Peak Council in Greeley, can help inspire families to do it on their own next year, said Thibodeaux, the camping director.

"Camping is an investment in time and money," she said, "but when you come to our camp, all you have to do is show up with your sleeping bag. There are kids who do this and become avid mountaineers or hikers."

Camping, for instance, doesn't have to be difficult or a gut check, said Brunelle, the author of "Camp Out."

"You don't have to go backcountry camping," she said. "Car camping is a lot easier. Approach it as an adventure. See what happens. And don't over plan it."

As long as children enjoy it, they'll want to do it again, said Bulger, the hunter education coordinator.

"We want our kids to have a positive experience, whether or not they get to shoot a lot of birds," Bulger said.

Bulger's got more kids than classes to fill the need, he said.