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KITTITAS COUNTY - Fisheries biologist Bob Tuck says he has often seen the disconnect between the younger generation and the natural world by a simple show of hands in classrooms throughout Kittitas and Yakima counties.

Tuck acknowledges kids raising their hands to answer his question isn't a scientific survey, but it's worrisome to him nonetheless.

Tuck, director of the Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program, during presentations on fisheries in the classroom asks how many students and-or their families are involved in any type activity that gets them outdoors or into a natural area.

"About a fourth to a third raise their hands," Tuck said earlier this week. "That's been a pretty steady response in the last few years, and we see kids in first through 12th grades, and I'd say about 4,000 to 6,000 students a year."

That means two-thirds to three-fourths are not doing anything connected to the outdoors on a regular basis, Tuck concludes.

"Now, that's the response in an area where people are in a somewhat rural area, where they're not too far away from a natural area, or a trail or the woods or a stream," Tuck said. "You can imagine what the response would be in the middle of Seattle."

Tuck, of Selah, see s the growing distance between people's everyday lives and the natural world as a disconnect; author Richard Louv in his 2005 book called it nature-deficit disorder.

Louv, in his "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," developed the disorder term and said children spending less time outdoors results in a number of behavioral problems.

Louv contends less time for outdoor exploration and unstructured play comes from parental fears of safety and the chance of assault or abduction, restricted access to natural areas and the increasing use and popularity of entertaining electronic and computerized devices and games.

Yet, efforts are ongoing by many families, local schools, nonprofit conservation, recreation and education organizations, and local agencies to reverse the trend and encourage local adults and youngsters to answer the call of the wild.

Lots of land

Although the disconnect with the natural environment is much greater in more urbanized areas, Lee Davis, president of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club, said he's seen it among adults and children in local communities.

"And, at the same time, we have here in Kittitas County great, close-by opportunities to get into the outdoors," Davis said.

It's been estimated, Davis said, that two-thirds of the county is made up of undeveloped public lands administered by state and federal agencies, with most open for public recreation.

Making an intentional effort to get outdoor time in Kittitas County doesn't mean a long drive or spending a lot of money, he said.

"It's going for a walk along Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park; it can be a leisurely hike up Manastash Ridge or letting your kids explore a wooded area to look at the birds and the bugs," Davis said. "A deer might walk by. You can still keep an eye on the kids at a distance and still let them explore."

Davis said the benefits of regular outdoor time can be physical, with getting good exercise, and spiritual, allowing people to connect to their faith.

It also can be a great family bonding time, memory maker and stress reliever, he said.

"Those people not doing something to connect with the outdoors are missing out on a big aspect of life," Davis said. "Outdoor activities can help you learn things about life you wouldn't ever learn sitting on a couch."

He said a big component of the club is to encourage outdoor activities and understanding of wildlife habitat. The group annually sponsors free fishing instruction and habitat education at Lake Fiorito on the statewide free-fishing day in June.

Connection

Kittitas Valley resident Deborah Essman, a certified hunter safety education instructor, birding field trip leader, outdoor enthusiast and member of several local conservation groups, said Kittitas County provides "a myriad of opportunities for outdoor experiences. It's a great place to be if you care about the outdoors."

She and her husband, Bill Essman, said a guideline for connecting to the outdoors is to "keep it simple." Bill is a former longtime state fish and wildlife officer and also is a hunter safety education instructor.

"Start with nearby, easily accessible activities in local parks and natural areas for afternoon or daylong outings," Bill said.

Expanding to camping means gathering information about local campgrounds, land-access rules and obtaining basic camping equipment that shouldn't cost too much, Bill said.

Familiarize yourself with outdoor safety, they both said, and match the activity with your physical abilities and limitations.

Bill said to plan enough time for outings that allow flexibility to explore and watch wildlife.

"What I've been noticing, at least locally, is an increase in people interested in all aspects of the outdoors," Bill said.

The future

Hal Lindstrom, local retired school teacher and one of the activists who led the effort to protect the 400,000-acre Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, said as wildlife habitat shrinks because of human activities and development, so does the opportunity for people to get out to experience natural areas.

"There's got to be an effect, an impact if there's less and less involvement with the outdoors and more with modern toys indoors," Lindstrom said. "There's got to be a loss of connection and sensitivity to wildlife and the environment."

He's concerned the steady loss of wild habitat areas means even less natural lands for future generations to appreciate and continued loss of species.

Bob Tuck is also worried.

If the trend continues with fewer and fewer people having a connection with the natural environment, Tuck fears years from now poor decisions will be made on the future of the Earth's natural resources.

"Then, the public discussion will be vastly different," Tuck said. "People will be less inclined toward proper resource management."

Connect with nature

• Yakima Basin Environmental Education Program - www.ybeep.org

• Kittitas County Field and Stream Club - www.kittitasfieldandstream.org

• Kittitas Audubon Society - www.kittitasaudubon.org

• Kittitas Environmental Education Network - www.kittitasee.net

• Recreation in Kittitas County-Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce - www.ellensburg-chamber.com/ellensburg/recreation.asp

• U.S. Bureau of Land Management-Washington-Oregon - www.blm.gov/or/index.php