A Critical Task: Building Environmental Literacy

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
North American Association for Environmental Education, Annual Meeting
Wichita, KS
— October 16, 2008

[slide 1]  Good afternoon! It is an honor to be here. I commend NAAEE for bringing us together to discuss one of the most vital tasks of conservation—building an understanding of the world we live in.

Twenty-two years ago, a founder of the World Wildlife Fund said that “the conservationist’s most important task, if we are to save the Earth, is to educate.”1 By that time, the NAAEE had already been putting these words into practice for 15 years. And the organization I work for, the U.S. Forest Service, had already been doing so for more than 80 years. Working with others, the Forest Service is one of the oldest and largest EE providers in the world.

If there’s one message I’d like to leave you with today, it’s that the Forest Service is a resource you can count on. We are there for the EE community. Before exploring how we are working together, I will first say a little about who we are.

The Role of the Forest Service

[slide 2]  The mission of the U.S. Forest Service is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” In short, it’s “caring for the land and serving people.”

[slide 3]  About a third of the United States is forested—the fourth largest forest estate in the world. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of our nation’s forestlands in a system of national forests that stretch from Alaska to Puerto Rico. It covers more than 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California. Not all of those 193 million acres are forestland. We manage many kinds of ecosystems, including most U.S. forest ecosystems, plus shrublands, rangelands, and canyonlands. Almost every state has at least one national forest or national grassland. Kansas has the Cimarron National Grassland southwest of here. We manage more than 133,000 miles of trail, a third of the National Wilderness Preservation System, municipal watersheds, permit use for ski areas, guides, and outfitters, and critical wildlife habitat for mammals, reptiles, anadromous fish, insects, plants—you name it. Public lands, and especially the national forests and grasslands, have become a last refuge for endangered species—some of the last places where they can find the habitat they need to survive.

In the East, 83 percent of the forestland is in private ownership. The U.S. government has no direct role in regulating private forestland. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, which vary widely. But the Forest Service does give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the states. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters in all fifty states and all five territories to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and conservation of open space. We also work with the states to support the use of Project Learning Tree and other teacher training.

[slide 4]  The Forest Service also has one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world. We have research stations, research labs, shared positions with many universities, 81 experimental forests nationwide, and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, rangelands, and other resources. We also work with other countries to share conservation knowledge—to help forestland owners and managers around the world manage their forests and other resources sustainably.

[slide 5]  Connecting our research with our other responsibilities has given us a strong forestry organization. Our research and land management professionals work hand-in-hand to create new knowledge and to use science to solve the most vexing conservation problems we face—and to open up exciting new conservation opportunities. Our mission extends to all forests in the United States, public and private. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote wilderness areas on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota to great cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, with their urban forests.

[slide 6]  What conservation challenges do we face? They run the gamut, from increasing wildfires, to invasive species, to a rapidly growing population and changing demographics and all the associated demands on wildlands. In my time as Forest Service Chief, I have traveled around the country and to other countries as well; and everywhere I have gone, I have heard three overarching concerns: climate change; water issues; and the loss of a connection to nature, especially in kids. I will say a few words about each of these concerns, because each points to the need for environmental education.

Climate Change

[slide 7]  First, climate change. Warming associated with climate change is greatest at northerly latitudes. In the United States, the areas most affected are Alaska and the Interior West. Here and elsewhere, climate change is disrupting ecological processes and damaging forest ecosystems—directly in some ways and indirectly in others.

[slide 8]  Alaska has some of the most direct impacts. In the coastal rainforests of Southeast Alaska, something has triggered a massive die-off of Alaska yellow-cedar, one of the state’s most valuable species. Our science indicated that the Alaska yellow-cedars are dying from a freezing injury to the roots due to a combination of warmer weather, reduced snowpacks insulating the roots, and brief cold snaps. The vast boreal forests in the Alaska interior are also vulnerable to ecological change triggered by warming. Because permafrost is thawing, shallow-rooted black spruce forests have toppled over in many lowland areas. And because soils are drying in upland areas, white spruce forests are dying.

[slide 9]  As destructive as these impacts are, they pale by comparison to the indirect impacts of climate change. These impacts come through normal forest stressors like drought, insects, storms, and wildland fires. Climate change can raise the frequency and intensity of these stressors to the point where they cause lasting ecological damage or destruction and lead to perhaps irreversible ecological shifts, releasing vast amounts of carbon.

[slide 10]  One example is drought. Drought, linked to climate change, has weakened trees, reducing their resistance to insect attack. At the same time, a warmer climate has greatly increased pine beetle activity. Two types of low-elevation pines, pinyon pine and ponderosa pine, have died on more than 6 million acres due to a combination of drought and bark beetle infestations. If you pass through lodgepole pine at higher elevations in the Rockies, you will see vast landscapes of beetle-killed trees. Southern pines have also been hard hit in many states

[slide 11]  Such indirect impacts also collide with decades of wetter than “normal” weather and decisions made a hundred years ago to suppress wildfires. Many fire-adapted forests in the United States have grown denser than they were historically, making them more susceptible to drought and insect attack. Drought stresses trees already stressed by overgrown conditions. Coupled with extensive insect mortality, this creates huge fire hazards. Wildfire activity in the West has quadrupled since the 1970s, releasing enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Wildfire season in the South now starts at the first of the year and runs into summer. Intense fires can cause soil fertility loss and erosion that might take centuries to repair.

Water Challenges

[slide 12]  Climate change is linked to the availability of clean freshwater around the world. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that runoff and water availability will decrease by 10 to 30 percent at middle latitudes worldwide, including much of the United States. The West will likely see smaller snowpacks and more winter flooding. Earlier snowmelts will cause lower summer streamflows, especially in late summer. 

Although the West is naturally arid, it is a fast-growing region, placing tremendous pressure on scarce water supplies. One of the largest reservoirs on the Colorado River, Lake Mead, fell to around 50-percent capacity last year. A study released in February found a 50-percent chance that the lake will go dry by 2121. One expert put it this way: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

[slide 13]  Water shortages are also reaching into the East. Last year, the Southeast reportedly had its worst drought in a hundred years. The state of Georgia rationed water and declared a state of emergency in its northern counties. At one point, Atlanta’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, had barely four months of water left. North Carolina also faced a state of emergency, and the governor asked residents to stop using water for “nonessential” purposes. Such regional water shortages are likely to continue; in 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office projected that at least 36 states would face water shortages by 2013.

[slide 14]  At the same time, demand for water will continue to grow. The good news is that total water withdrawals in the United States have stabilized since 1985, despite population growth. But the our population will continue to grow. The projected population rise is from about 300 million today to about 570 million by 2100. This is bound to place new strains on water sources that are often already oversubscribed.

[slide 15]  Conservationists have long understood the connection between forests and water. Spongy forest soils soak up rain, recharging aquifers and releasing high-quality water for downstream use. Fifty-three percent of the water supply in the contiguous United States originates on forestland, even though forests cover just 29 percent of the surface area. Gifford Pinchot, who helped found American forestry at the turn of the 20th century, put it this way: “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.” One of the best ways to protect our water supplies for future generations is to protect our forests.

Connection to Nature

[slide 16]  The challenges of water and climate change are related, and they are huge. They will not be solved in a few years. It will take decades. Future generations will need to rise to these challenges no less than our own. As conservationists, we have an obligation to help kids connect to the outdoors—to understand the connection between forests and water … to understand the implications of their own choices and actions, both now and when they are grown.

[slide 17]  It isn’t easy. Americans are increasingly diverse, increasingly urban, increasingly prone to the comforts of life indoors. Today, about 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urbanized areas. Few people truly know where their food comes from beyond the supermarket shelf. Few know how much they depend on forests and grasslands for clean air and clean water. Few know the economic and psychological benefits of street trees or city parks.

[slide 18]  At the Forest Service, we are concerned that kids are growing up estranged from nature—without the sense of awe and wonder so many of us experienced as we did chores and played outside. I grew up in New England, and I spent a lot of time in the woods—town forests, backyards, parks, and, yes, on the national forests there—the White Mountain and the Green Mountain. Some of this exploring I did alone, some with siblings, the best with my dad or my mom and dad. Many kids today do not have those same opportunities or don’t feel safe, as was shared today at lunch. Their lives are more urbanized, more regulated, more computerized, more indoor-oriented.

Of course, all this electronic wizardry gives kids opportunities I did not have as a kid. Today’s television shows and computer programs, not to mention the Internet, can be tremendous resources. They can teach kids all there is to know about a bison—or what a giant redwood looks like—or what a humpback whale sounds like.

[slide 19]  But these resources alone are not enough. There is no substitute for getting outdoors, up close and personal with nature—for touching a pinecone, watching what ants do, listening to the cascade of a river, or smelling a forest after it has rained. There is no substitute for assessing the risks of climbing a tree or crossing a creek and maybe skinning a knee or, heaven forbid, getting dirty. Without that direct connection to nature, how can kids appreciate its value? Kids need to understand how much they depend on nature’s services, wherever they live. It is the responsibility of our generation to build environmental literacy in the next.

Building Environmental Literacy

[slide 20]  That brings me back to EE. If we are to achieve our goals as conservationists … if we are to rise to the great challenges ahead, such as climate change and water concerns … then we need environmental education. That is why the Forest Service is so committed to EE. To illustrate, I will give some examples of how we are working with partners to promote EE.

[slide 21]  First, an example from research. The Forest Service works not just in the natural sciences, but also in the social sciences to help us understand the nature-based needs and demands of the people we serve. Since the 1960s, we have followed trends in outdoor recreation, one way that Americans connect to nature—and, as free play, one of the most important means of growing healthy kids. Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, our research indicates that the number of people engaging in activities such as fishing, camping, and hiking is still going up. That should be good news for everyone.

[slide 22]  Our National Forest System, with over 500 ranger district offices located across the nation, is a great EE resource. The national forests offer a tremendous wealth of landscapes, of wildlife, of outdoor-classroom opportunities for learning, for getting outdoors and just having fun. There are thousands of campgrounds, thousands of miles of trail, thousands of streams and lakes, millions of acres of wilderness. Each year, tens of millions of Americans take advantage of those opportunities. We typically get 200 million visits a year, including more than 30 million visits from children under 16. People come for all sorts of outdoor activities … skiing and other winter sports … picking berries and mushrooms … bird and wildlife watching … hunting and fishing … hiking and camping … or just picnicking and driving for pleasure, enjoying the view.

[slide 23]  The Forest Service is also taking opportunities to bring more people outdoors on other public and private lands. Our Urban Connections program, for example, has projects in four northeastern and midwestern cities such as New York or Detroit. In Chicago, we are partnering with others in the Chicago Wilderness Consortium, which includes 225,000 acres of protected lands in the greater Chicago area, including one of our own, the Midewin National Prairie. Volunteers of all ages help protect and restore wildlife habitat, collect scientific data on local ecosystems, and educate others about nature. We are expanding this program to Texas and other states.

[slide 24]  In 2005, the Forest Service refocused our educational programs by developing a strategic plan to advance environmental literacy. Our focus is on working with partners to deliver high-quality, science-based education about forests and grasslands to children from pre-K to grade 12, in both formal and informal settings. Our goals include providing high-quality programs and materials, strengthening leadership and program management, and maximizing partnerships by enhancing old partnerships as well as forming new ones.

[slide 25]  Our latest figures are from 2006. In that year, we had 1,578 partnerships in environmental education, and 70 to 80 percent of the funding for our EE programs came from partners. By leveraging our resources in this way, we were able to reach about 4.4 million people, and the number coming from urban areas went from 4 percent in 2004 to 35 percent in 2006. In the same two-year period, the number of our EE activities more than doubled. Programs include both school-based and informal activities, such as teacher training programs … “A Forest for Every Classroom” is a good example … or field trips … or residential and day camps … or NatureWatch … and more.

[slide 26]  Here’s an example of one of our partnerships. It’s on the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California, not far from the huge metropolitan areas of L.A. and San Diego. We took 3,400 acres and created the nation’s first Children’s Forest. Our partners include the National Forest Association and a range of local community organizations. The idea is to give kids a chance, starting at very young ages, to take leadership roles in forest management.

  • [slide 27]  There’s a discovery center at the entrance to the Children’s Forest. It’s the only visitor center in the nation staffed by youth volunteers. These young people teach visitors about the area’s plants and animals, recreation opportunities, and more. Young people also lead interpretive hikes and summer campfire programs at Forest Service campgrounds.
  • [slide 28]  Another program at the Children’s Forest is for local sixth-graders. It’s called Pathways to Stewardship. It’s a year-long curriculum based on state science standards. It includes school site activities, teacher workshops, field trips, and camping opportunities.
  • [slide 29]  Then there’s the Great Seeds Native Plant Restoration Program, where young people operate a greenhouse, raise seedlings, revegetate burned areas, and do other kinds of restoration work.

In 2007, these programs generated more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service for the San Bernardino National Forest. The Children’s Forest is a great example of turning ideas into action—a place “designed by kids, but built by the community.” It’s a way for us to work with partners and local communities to reconnect kids to the outdoors.

[slide 30] Another critically important partnership for us at the national level is with NAAEE and EPA. We are working together to train Forest Service employees and their local partners in the use of the Guidelines for Excellence for developing and selecting EE materials. We are also working with partners to develop evaluation tools for EE programs. How effective are these programs? We really don’t know. We have been working with the University of Michigan, supported by EPA and NAAEE, to help environmental educators evaluate their programs using a Web-based support tool. It’s called MEERA, for My Environmental Education Evaluation Resource Assistant.

Conservation: Something Learned

[slide 31]  Aldo Leopold once said that we as a nation “are embarked on two large-scale experiments. One is premised on the notion that conservation is something a nation buys. The other is premised on the notion that conservation is something a nation learns.”

We are never going to buy our way out of climate change, and money alone won’t solve problems with water quantity or quality. These challenges are just too great in scope, too global in reach. They won’t be solved until people across our nation—and, indeed, around the world—begin to understand the implications of their actions and inactions for the lands and waters that sustain us all. We need to build environmental literacy in the next generation.

EE is vital to that task, and the Forest Service remains deeply committed to it. We have a tremendous record of conservation education, tremendous resources to work with, and tremendous partners to draw on. We stand ready and willing to work by your side. I commend all of you in the EE community for your efforts. Thank you for all you do!


Peter Scott, cofounder of the World Wildlife Fund, quoted in Sunday Telegraph, 6 November 1986.

In October 2008, Lake Lanier was still about 17 feet below normal summer levels.


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