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Scrapbook: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors

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October 25, 2011

Connecting Youth to the Outdoors


Longtime sportsman and clean water activist Tim Guilfoile was recently named Conservation Editor of The Contemporary Sportsman, where he authors a regular column, Wilderness Journal, in his official capacity as Deputy Director of the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program.

The following article, Connecting Youth to the Outdoors, is part of Guilfoile's ongoing work to introduce the Water Sentinels to the hunter/angler community. It appeared in the magazine's Fall 2011 issue.


The Sierra Club Water Sentinels work to protect, improve, and restore the waters of the United States by fostering alliances to promote water quality monitoring, public education, and citizen action. Formed in 2001, the program has trained, equipped, and deployed nearly 13,000 volunteer water-quality monitors at 56 locations in 23 states.

The Water Sentinels are aware that participation by youth in outdoor recreation is on the decline. We recognize that this trend threatens the health and well-being of our youth and future generations, but it also represents a decline in the engagement of our citizens in protecting our environment. We are committed to reverse this trend and have developed a robust program to involve our youth in outdoor activities. Water recreation is, more than any other outdoor activity, the gateway to future, sustained involvement in outdoor recreation and the development of environmental leaders.

Photo by Mark Lance, courtesy of The Contemporary Sportsman

Studies have clearly demonstrated that involving children in outdoor recreation improves school performance, including higher test scores in science and mathematics, reduces stress, enhances self-esteem, improves interpersonal relationships, and has a positive impact on overall health.

The Water Sentinels' youth programs are extensive and include teacher training, fishing, floating, nature hikes, water-quality monitoring, outdoor education fairs, interpretive field trips, community litter cleanups, tree planting along stream corridors, nature photography, and a variety of other activities. These activities extend to all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

Perhaps the most significant of all of our youth related commitments is our fishing program. The data is clear, that with modest financial investment and support mechanisms the low rate of youth participation in fishing increases to a greater degree than any other outdoor activity. These studies have also documented that African American, Hispanic, and children who are socioeconomically underserved have lower participation rates in outdoor activities than the general population. However, parents and guardians are extremely supportive of involving these youth in outdoor activities. The principal barrier to participation is lack of equipment and expert resources. With modest investments in these resources, the data clearly demonstrate that participation rates in fishing increase significantly.

Photo by Mark Lance, courtesy of The Contemporary Sportsman

Fishing, more than any other water related activity, has the most lasting effect on future outdoor and healthy lifestyle activities. Seventy-eight percent of people who fish participate in another outdoor activity. Children who begin fishing between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age engage in crossover activities as adults according to the following percentages: Fitness Walking/Running 46%, Camping 32%, Weight/Aerobics 30%, Hiking 22%, Wildlife Viewing 20%, Team Sports 16%, Bicycling 15%. This is a significantly higher rate than for the overall population.

Finally, children who fish as adults are 25% more likely to (1) participate in preserving undeveloped land for outdoor recreation, (2) support the development of parks/biking/walking trails in their neighborhoods, and (3) volunteer/donate to support environmental/conservation efforts.

The key to the success of our youth fishing program is the development of partnerships that have the adults to support youth fishing programs but lack the fishing equipment and the expertise to organize these endeavors.

Our first partnership was with the Federation of Fly Fishers in 2008. In the first year of the program, the Water Sentinels distributed over 860 rods and reels to 150 Federation clubs and we documented getting nearly 50,000 youth out fishing. Our next partnership was with Trout Unlimited and we distributed 600 rods and reels to 17 conservation camps and 24 state councils. We have also provided equipment and consultation to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, community fishing clubs, annual fishing derbies, churches, schools, after-school programs, and Sierra Club Inner City Outings Programs.

Our most recent partnership is with the National Military Fish & Wildlife Association, the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, and Zebco. These military fish & wildlife professionals are responsible for providing recreational opportunities to children who reside with their families on military installations throughout the United States. Before our partnership, there were insufficient resources to develop youth fishing programs. Thus far, we have distributed nearly 1,200 rods and reels to 41 military bases and have documented over 50, 000 youth engaged in fishing.

In 2010, among all of our partnerships, we documented 185,000 youth who were introduced to fishing through our programs and partnerships.

The Water Sentinels would like to continue to expand its fishing program in all quarters of the country and are continuously in search of additional partners. The benefits of the further expansion of this program are substantial:

▪ Youth fishing has a lasting effect on future outdoor activities.

▪ The rates of participation of African Americans, Hispanics, and children who are socioeconomically underserved will increase and will translate into broader participation in outdoor activities.

▪ Youth fishing will provide the immediate benefits seen with outdoor recreation, including improved school performance, reduced stress, enhanced self-esteem, improved interpersonal relationships, and a positive impact on overall health.

▪ Fishing will provide a documented window to the crossover outdoor and healthy lifestyle activities mentioned previously.

▪ Today our program has not fully penetrated the Upper Midwest, a region that has a higher percentage of surface water (not including the Great Lakes) than any other region in the United States. The impact that youth fishing has on their conservation attitudes as adults will provide a substantial benefit to the future of the region's water resources.

▪ Fishing is a powerful economic driver. Connecting more youth to this sport will ensure the long-term viability of this multi-billion dollar industry.

The Sierra Club Water Sentinels have the organizing and technical expertise to translate resources into demonstrable increases in youth fishing. As the evidence clearly demonstrates, this will result in the expansion of the scope of youth participation in a broader array of lifelong outdoor activities.

You know the old saying, "If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there'd be a shortage of fishing poles."


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