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Fewer hikers means less support for conservation, study says

Serious hikers and backpackers tend to become supporters of
environmental and conservation groups while casual woodland tourists do
not, a new study says — and a recent fall-off in strenuous outdoor
endeavors portends a coming decline in the ranks of conservation
backers.

Oliver Pergams, visiting research assistant professor of biological
sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Patricia
Zaradic, director of the Red Rock Institute in Pennsylvania, made
headlines in early 2008 with a study showing that a steady decline in
nature recreation since the late 1980s correlated strongly with a rise
in playing video games, surfing the Internet and watching movies — an
unhealthy trend they called “videophilia.”

Now Pergams and Zaradic, along with Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at
the Nature Conservancy, have found that only people who engage in
vigorous outdoor sports, like hiking and backpacking, tend later to
become supporters of mainline conservation groups, while those who only
go sightseeing or fishing do not. Their findings are reported Oct. 7 in
PLoS ONE, an online publication of the Public Library of Science.

The researchers found that the amount of time one spent hiking or
backpacking in nature correlated with a willingness, 11 to 12 years
later, to financially support any of four representative conservation
organizations: the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra
Club or Environmental Defense. The typical backpacker gave $200 to $300
per year, after the dozen-year lag.

“For the first time, we’ve shown a direct correlation between outdoor
recreation and investment in conservation, and we know what types of
outdoor activity are most likely to lead to conservation investment,”
Zaradic said.

Surprisingly, the more time one spent fishing or sightseeing in natural
areas, the less likely that person was to support these particular
conservation causes.

“Apparently not all outdoor recreation is equal in terms of who is
going to be an investor in conservation,” Zaradic said.

The researchers conclude that there are effectively “two Americas” when
it comes to nature exposure and support for conservation. Environmental
groups depend on a very narrow base of support from elite, active
outdoor enthusiasts — a group that is predominantly white,
college-educated, higher income, and over 35.

“There’s a much broader market — more diverse and urban — that can be
tapped by conservation organizations,” Zaradic said. “Those groups
haven’t been spoken to in a way that attracts them.”

Pergams agrees the finding is a wake-up call to environmental groups
that their base is shrinking, as giving can be predicted to fall during
the next decade with the decline in hiking and backpacking since their
popularity peaked from 1998 to 2000.

Also boding ill for the conservation groups is an economic study
Pergams published in 2004 that showed that support for conservation
depends on the broader economy and can be predicted by GDP and personal
income. Pergams is concerned that the current economic crisis will add
to the conservationists’ woes caused by declines in hiking over the
past dozen years.

“It’s a ‘perfect storm’ of lower personal and corporate income
resulting in less conservation support, compounded by effects from the
past decline in hiking and backpacking,” he said. “It’s tough times
ahead.”

Pergams says the key to conservation awareness and support is to reach
children early with broad-based educational programs that introduce
them to vigorous outdoor recreation.

“If you never get out into nature, you’re not going to care about it
when you get older,” Pergams said. “The kids are where it’s at, and
we’re losing our kids to other influences — they don’t go outside.”




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