Fewer hikers means less support for conservation, study says

Serious hikers and backpackers tend to become supporters ofenvironmental and conservation groups while casual woodland tourists donot, a new study says -- and a recent fall-off in strenuous outdoorendeavors portends a coming decline in the ranks of conservationbackers.

Oliver Pergams, visiting research assistant professor of biologicalsciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and PatriciaZaradic, director of the Red Rock Institute in Pennsylvania, madeheadlines in early 2008 with a study showing that a steady decline innature recreation since the late 1980s correlated strongly with a risein playing video games, surfing the Internet and watching movies -- anunhealthy trend they called "videophilia."

Now Pergams and Zaradic, along with Peter Kareiva, chief scientist atthe Nature Conservancy, have found that only people who engage invigorous outdoor sports, like hiking and backpacking, tend later tobecome supporters of mainline conservation groups, while those who onlygo sightseeing or fishing do not. Their findings are reported Oct. 7 inPLoS ONE, an online publication of the Public Library of Science.

The researchers found that the amount of time one spent hiking orbackpacking in nature correlated with a willingness, 11 to 12 yearslater, to financially support any of four representative conservationorganizations: the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, the SierraClub or Environmental Defense. The typical backpacker gave $200 to $300per year, after the dozen-year lag.

"For the first time, we've shown a direct correlation between outdoorrecreation and investment in conservation, and we know what types ofoutdoor activity are most likely to lead to conservation investment,"Zaradic said.

Surprisingly, the more time one spent fishing or sightseeing in naturalareas, the less likely that person was to support these particularconservation causes.

"Apparently not all outdoor recreation is equal in terms of who isgoing to be an investor in conservation," Zaradic said.

The researchers conclude that there are effectively "two Americas" whenit comes to nature exposure and support for conservation. Environmentalgroups depend on a very narrow base of support from elite, activeoutdoor enthusiasts -- a group that is predominantly white,college-educated, higher income, and over 35.

"There's a much broader market -- more diverse and urban -- that can betapped by conservation organizations," Zaradic said. "Those groupshaven't been spoken to in a way that attracts them."

Pergams agrees the finding is a wake-up call to environmental groupsthat their base is shrinking, as giving can be predicted to fall duringthe next decade with the decline in hiking and backpacking since theirpopularity peaked from 1998 to 2000.

Also boding ill for the conservation groups is an economic studyPergams published in 2004 that showed that support for conservationdepends on the broader economy and can be predicted by GDP and personalincome. Pergams is concerned that the current economic crisis will addto the conservationists' woes caused by declines in hiking over thepast dozen years.

"It's a 'perfect storm' of lower personal and corporate incomeresulting in less conservation support, compounded by effects from thepast decline in hiking and backpacking," he said. "It's tough timesahead."

Pergams says the key to conservation awareness and support is to reachchildren early with broad-based educational programs that introducethem to vigorous outdoor recreation.

"If you never get out into nature, you're not going to care about itwhen you get older," Pergams said. "The kids are where it's at, andwe're losing our kids to other influences -- they don't go outside."

Source: University of Illinois at Chicago