As the new U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell intends to use her “megaphone,” as she calls it – or the bully pulpit, as Teddy Roosevelt used to describe the persuasive power of office – to get more Americans outside into nature.
Last month, one of her first converts was a hard sell. Joel Stein, in a recent Time magazine column, wrote that he had been puzzling over what his family might do for their family vacation. Something, as he put it, that his son Laszlo would like “and yet would still allow me to drink wine.”
So he called the new Interior Secretary to ask for suggestions. “Jewell was previously the CEO of REI and has climbed the highest mountain in Antarctica,” he wrote. Asking her for outdoorsy advice “was like asking for early-morning wake-up tips from Johnny Knoxville.”
She recommended camping. Or “glamping,” as she adjusted to Stein’s sensibilities. Glamping, or glamor camping, can include all manner of hotel-style luxuries. Jewell’s preference in glamp decor is “a cot or an inflatable mattress and a nice comfy tent.” (Stein probably breathed a sigh of relief. Before her reassurances, he imagined Jewell’s “idea of nonglamorous camping” to be “punching herself in the face until she falls asleep on a frozen mountain in Antarctica.”) She suggested that Stein and son participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s annual Great American Campout. Stein proposed that to Laszlo, and to Stein’s surprise, his son expressed excitement. So he and Laszlo did some backyard glamping. They had a great time.
Sally Jewell has that effect on people. Her enthusiasm for the great outdoors is infectious, even for the skeptics like Stein who are intimidated by the whole idea. And her infectiousness doesn’t just spring from the years she spent selling outdoor gear, but from her core. She hikes the hike.
On June 25, I moderated a discussion with Secretary Jewell at the Center for American Progress, to help launch Great Outdoors America Week 2013. More than 200 conservation and other groups were represented, along with several Natural Leaders from the Children & Nature Network. A video of the event can be viewed here.
This wasn’t the first time that we had such a discussion. A few years ago, she asked me to join her on an REI stage for a conversation about the disconnect between children and nature. As the conversation evolved, I was impressed by her eloquence and feeling for the issue. At one point, she teared up. At the D.C. discussion in June, she was just as passionate about connecting young people to nature – only this time from a more visible pulpit.
Over the years, she has done much more than talk. For starters, the REI Foundation has supported what many have referred to as the Leave No Child Inside movement (as have The North Face, The Walt Disney Company, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Lindblad Expeditions, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and most of the major conservation organizations and others). Increasingly, this is an international movement, with implications for health, learning, jobs, and the future of science and conservation. Studies suggest that almost to a person, people who identify themselves as conservationists or environmentalists had transcendent experiences in nature when they were kids.
Considering the challenges ahead for Sally Jewell and the rest of us, the movie Jaws comes to mind. It’s an environmentally incorrect movie, I suppose. But remember that moment when the lead characters realize just how big a shark they’re dealing with? Someone blurted, “We need a bigger boat.”
Today, the three major environmental challenges of our time are climate change, the biodiversity collapse, and the disconnect between children and nature. All are related.
Despite the current job market (and enormous college loan debt) that might have gutted earlier student campaigns, many in the Millennial Generation – people now old enough to be in high school or college — have taken up the challenge on climate change; their efforts must now be bolstered by a new generation of young leaders. True, personal experience with nature isn’t a mandatory prerequisite for caring about climate change. My generation didn’t have to have handled plutonium in order to care about nuclear threats. But to care deeply about pollution or species, you have to love nature; you must experience it early and often. From this perspective, all conservation is local.
By bringing more young people to the joy of nature, from increasingly diverse ethnicities and backgrounds – ranging from inner cities to distant farms – Secretary Jewell will help America build that larger constituency for the future.
One way she and others can build support for a broader nature movement will be to broaden the definition of “green jobs.”
That new definition should include the many nature-smart occupations that connect people to nature for their health, well-being, and enhanced ability to learn — jobs or avocations that already exist or could be created by entrepreneurs.
Jewell will be the third Interior Secretary in a row to be dedicated to connecting kids and their families to nature. Former Secretaries Dirk Kempthorne and Ken Salazar, during their time with DOI, worked hard on this front. Note that this issue has been supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, because connecting kids to nature appeals to people across political and religious spectrums.
Now, building on that appeal, we can create an even larger network of action and support for conservation and the health and survival of the human species — an expanding constituency that spans political, cultural and religious spectrums, one that includes churches and synagogues, schools and businesses, neighborhoods, and cities; one that invites pediatricians, educators, urban planners, and many others to contribute to the building of a new nature movement, one that includes traditional environmentalism and sustainability, but moves deeper into the realms of human health, well-being and the ability to learn, create and be fully alive.
Government can be a catalyst. What if DOI were to sponsor a “Public Lands, Public Health” campaign to leverage the health benefits of parks, preserves, trails, waterways and other outdoor areas — and thereby build public support for these lands and waters?
But the greatest potential for a new nature movement resides in the private sector from which Secretary Jewell comes, the non-profit sector, and from the strength of our culture.
In her new role, Secretary Jewell won’t please all the people all the time. But someday, historians may describe her as one of the great Interior Secretaries — and if they do, that will have happened because she helped turn the tides of climate change and biodiversity, used her megaphone to connect people to nature, and helped build a bigger boat.
Richard Louv is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network. He is the author of eight books, including “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age.”
Photo 1: Secretary Jewell speaks with a student while hiking in Prince William Forest Park. – Photo: Tami A. Heilemann – Office of Communications, DOI
Photo 2: Attending the conversation with Sally Jewell were C&NN Natural Leaders Juan Martinez; Tara Arthur; Lizbeth Williams; C&NN board member Ray Rivera; Natural Leader Amanda Wilson; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official Nate Hawley; and C&NN co-founder and Islandwood Senior Vice President Martin LeBlanc.
Photo 3: © Maya Sharp