Middle River Dispatches is a gumbo of posts about fly-fishing, conservation, politics and days afield.

Filling the need to teach our youth

The $70 million in funding for a new youth conservation education initiative proposed by the Obama administration recently got a bit of attention in Washington.

This new initiative, know as the 21st Century Youth Conservation Corps, was included in the president’s 2010 budget request for the Department of the Interior.

On June 3, more than 140 groups, including many prominent hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation organizations, co-signed a letter to Congress urging them to support full funding for this initiative. The letter points out that the initiative “will bolster environmental education, recreation and service programs throughout the Department, and engage thousands of youth in the outdoors.”

On Monday, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president, were on the National Mall in Washington to talk about the program. At the event, Salazar signed a Secretarial Order establishing an Office of Youth in Natural Resources at the Department of the Interior.

“President Obama and I believe that during tough economic times, a new national youth program is needed to provide jobs, outdoor experiences and career opportunities for young people — especially women, minorities, tribal and other underserved youth,” Salazar said.

This type of funding is long overdue. Education, especially when it connects young people with the outdoors, is a wonderful investment. It is the young people who will be the next stewards of out great natural resources heritage.

One of the challenges those of us who love the outdoors face is connecting, or in some cases, reconnecting our kids to the outdoors. Funding like this can go a long way to help support existing programs like Trout in the Classroom or the Archery in the Schools Program or high school fishing teams like the one at Orange County High School. It also means there will be resources for the states and local communities to start new programs.

Here in the Valley we are fortunate to have an abundance of outdoor opportunities and a rich heritage of hunting, fishing and conservation. But even the Valley is not immune from the distractions of modern society. Our young people need both guidance and opportunity to learn about and contribute to our rich natural resource heritage.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer young people are being exposed to traditional outdoor recreation. They are out of touch with nature. They are missing the connection to hunting, fishing and the food on the table. They don’t learn about the connection of fish and wildlife habitat, natural resources conservation and economic activity.

We are facing an emerging “conservation gap”. As the population becomes more urbanized, the ties to nature and the value and need to conserve our fish and wildlife habitat is broken. The loss of this connection to our outdoor heritage poses a growing threat to conservation of that fish and wildlife habitat.

We must engage this and future generations in fish and wildlife related recreation and conservation. And, we have to do it on their terms and in a way that is relevant to them.

If Congress approves the funding, $40 million will be used to supplement existing programs at the Department of Interior. This will create greater opportunities to engage young people across all of the Department’s natural resources agencies.

The best part of this initiative is the new $30 million in funding for grants to state and tribal programs for hunting and fishing education and outreach. Special attention will paid to urban and minority youth programs.

The importance of reaching urban and minority youth cannot be over-stated. The model for wildlife conservation in this country is successful because it engaged hunters and anglers in conserving our natural resources. If that connection is lost because we fail to reach growing segment of our population then those of us that enjoy the great outdoors may lose the chance to pass it on to future generations.

You can read more of my columns at News Virginian.com

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