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State Ponders Way To Get New Oregonians Outdoors

Oregon parks officials are mapping out a five year plan to convince sedentary young people and minorities to spend more time outdoors.

The agency is giving the public a month to comment on the draft plan.  Once it’s complete, it will drive parks and rec grants for the next five years.

A new report out  Tuesday says kids who don’t camp and hike  are less likely to become adults who camp and hike.  Colin Fogarty reports.

Tryon ParkThe Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan – or SCORP – is aimed at keeping state parks current with changing demographics.

One challenge agency managers have found in surveys is that Oregon’s growing population of racial minorities is less likely to visit state parks.

Terry Bergerson  is a planning director for Parks and Rec.

Terry Bergerson:  "The focus groups are telling us that they’re basically left out right now.  And they don’t feel that we are giving them proper information.  So we need to figure out new ways of getting information to these other populations."

That may entail starting Spanish language programs or getting information about state parks into schools.  But it’s not just children of immigrants and minorities Bergerson is hoping to reach.

His surveys and focus groups have revealed a trend that’s been well documented about all children. 

Terry Bergerson:  "And what the parents are telling us is that they’re spending less time in general outdoor play.  And that really goes along with the national level studies as well.  So what we see is a lot of competition for time."

Creeks and trails are competing with Sponge Bob and Wii, and it’s clear which side is winning.

Out at Tryon Creek State Park outside of Portland, program managers see the trend first hand. 

Stephanie Wagner has been with Friends of Tryon Creek State Park for 35 years.  She says more kids visiting the park say it's their first time in the forest.  And Wagner blames TV and video games.

Stephanie Wagner: "I teach classes at Portland State.  And the kids in the classes, it didn’t dominate their lives the way it dominates so many kids lives now.  So within the last fifteen years, this has been a huge change.  And I think that’s a big change.  It’s not just TV.  It’s this change in computer and computer games and the amount of time kids are interacting that way."

The Park and Rec surveys and focus groups found that parents want their children to get outdoors more.  But for a variety of reasons – including fear — they don’t actively encourage it.  Wagner says that’s very different from her childhood.

Stephanie Wagner: "People don’t let their kids get on their bike and disappear for a day.  When I grew up, I was on my bike and if I was home for dinner, it was great.  If I was late for dinner, I was in big trouble.  But I was out all day long."

The five year state parks plan doesn’t encourage that.  But it does recommend grants go to programs that kids have said they want.

For example, the surveys found that the number one outdoor activity children say they want is tent camping.  But that’s on the decline.

So the aim is to  funnel grants into programs to encourage that.  The  education director at the Friends of Tryon Creek State Park  — Sheila Diaz — says getting outside is part of what being an Oregonian is all about.    

Sheila Diaz: "I love having kids dig through a rotten log and try to find some insects.  Stop for a second and see if you can hear the birds out in the forest.  Right now we can here the rain.  I definitely love seeing children grow from being terrified of slugs to thinking they’re adorable and cute.  So all these things that are just part of growing up in the northwest.  I’m a fourth generation Oregonian.  I’ve always been out in the woods."

Fewer kids in the woods may be a loss for Oregon’s outdoorsy culture.  But it’s also a financial problem for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The agency’s budget is funded in part through daily fees.  While state parks are having problems drawing new visitors, the future isn’t all bad.  The report says as baby boomers retire, they’ll be spending a lot more time outdoors.