Children and Nature : US programme makes for happy campers

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From Children and Nature Network |!/LearnFromNature

“Your state parks need our help now more than ever,” Carter Smith, the agency’s executive director, says in a public-service announcement posted on YouTube.

It took some coaxing for Heather Duke to persuade her husband to go on a family camping trip.

“He’d rather stay at the Hyatt Regency,” Duke, a 36-year-old mom of two from Katy, says with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Are you sure?’”

But she was able to alleviate his trepidation by explaining that they would not be heading off into the wilderness alone — they would go on a ranger-led program called Texas Outdoor Family that would supply almost all of the equipment and all of the know-how, for just $65.

“I wanted to start early with my kids, just to get away from the TV and the cell phones and the busy life,” says Duke, mom to 7-year-old Julie and 4-year-old Grant.

On a weekend in November, she got what she came for as her kids and several others from a total of 15 families played tag and hide-and-seek among the dense oaks and junipers — squealing and swerving through the trees without fear of passing cars — in the fresh air of Pedernales Falls State Park in the Hill Country.

They dug in the dirt.

They chased an unbothered armadillo.

This is the commodity that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is trying desperately to sell.

After a year of record heat, drought and wildfires, the agency finds itself facing a $4.6 million budget shortfall. With rivers and lakes going dry, sales of freshwater fishing licenses dropped more than 30 percent, and in August, park visitation fell almost 25 percent compared with a year earlier. Officials are pleading for donations to keep parks open.

“Your state parks need our help now more than ever,” Carter Smith, the agency’s executive director, says in a public-service announcement posted on YouTube.

They need more folks like the Dukes.

Surveys conducted by the agency between 2002 and 2007 show that the average age of a state park visitor is 47. “While we don’t think that’s that old, we’d like to see more of the younger generation out in our parks,” says Park Ranger Rob Owen, who leads many of the Texas Outdoor Family programs.

The agency created the program – believed to be a first of its kind in the nation – in 2008 to reach city folks unsure if they want to spend money on camping equipment or if their kids will even like the great outdoors.

“We looked at ways to get people back in parks,” Owen says. “Maybe they were intimated by spending a night outdoors. We thought we missed a generation of state park users.”

The program, which provides tents, stoves, lanterns and lessons on how to use it all, quickly became a popular offering. There’s no limit to the number of times a family can participate and at the better-known parks, Texas Outdoor Family programs sell out months in advance.

So far, about 2,000 families have participated, Owen said. Sixty-five percent have been back to a park, and 82 percent say in surveys that they are likely to go camping again.

The program is a bright spot in a tough year for the state’s parks, and even it took a hit: Texas Outdoor Family is based out of Bastrop, where a wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes last Labor Day weekend. Two-thirds of the program’s equipment was stored in Bastrop.

“When I saw on the news that the fire was moving through that area, that the street our office was on was evacuated, I was very concerned that we did lose our office and all of our gear,” Owen says.

While fire surrounded the building and tore through its picket fence, the office was spared. But the program lost four trucks and a shed that held 25 percent of its gear. They’ve had to borrow trucks from other programs.

“We’re currently working with what we have,” says Owen, who was among the firefighters battling the Bastrop blaze. “We’re seeking out some sponsors.”

More than two months later, as he welcomed new campers to Pedernales Falls, a singed trailer nearby served as a reminder of the destructive wildfires.

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