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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© David S. Edwards
The outdoor expo provides a hands-on chance to explore outdoor fun.

© David S. Edwards

April 2007

Keeping connected

A big exposition aims to spark kids' interest in a lifetime of outdoor recreation and exploration.

Jeff Pritzl

Making it happen behind the scenes
Healthy minds, bodies and ecosystems
Get involved in this year's expo

Aldo Leopold once wrote about the spiritual dangers of not staying connected to the rural landscape. "One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." It was an observation in the 1930s that may be truer than ever today. As our society urbanizes, our daily connection with the natural world becomes thinner. You could argue that this is a good thing; that the best way to protect nature is to leave it alone. But you would be wrong.

"People take care of what they care about," says DNR Chief Warden Randy Stark.

The most active supporters of natural resources have always been the most active users of those resources. And here lies a concern: Fewer people are taking up traditional outdoor pursuits like hunting, fishing and trapping. In Wisconsin, for every 100 hunters that leave the field, mostly due to age, only 53 new recruits are signing on.

Participation in traditional field sports has been America's bankroll for conservation work for almost 100 years. The 1.5 million folks who harvest fish and game have been joined by gardeners, hikers, campers, bicyclists, boaters, birdwatchers and other nature enthusiasts. While that broader group of outdoor enthusiasts is refreshing, conservation leaders and lawmakers have not tapped into how to build support among this wider group of outdoor interests to fund outdoor recreation. And 75 percent of the nation's conservation funding still comes from hunting, trapping and fishing.

To maintain the many programs that have provided professional resource management, funded public land management and preserved millions of acres of our natural world for our collective enjoyment, it is critical to sustain and grow the population of hunters and anglers. This, in turn, should be accompanied by a common partnership across all outdoor participants.

Nick Hocking relates conservation ethics that remain important parts of Native American culture. © Robert Queen
Nick Hocking relates conservation ethics that remain important parts of Native American culture.

© Robert Queen

Forward thinking conservationists are concerned about the future they see coming if the decline in numbers of hunters, anglers and trappers continues, so a unique collection of them have organized to let more people see what these activities can offer. The Wisconsin Outdoor Alliance Foundation (WOAF) is a mixture of conservation, business and trade organizations. Their first strategy toward a brighter future for conservation is to expose more people to traditional outdoor activities through a Wisconsin Outdoor Education Expo. "The expo is a two-day event where students and families can experience 'hands-on' outdoor activities designed to encourage lifelong participation," explains Rebecca Smith, WOAF Chair.

Last May on a breezy Friday, 3,200 Wisconsin fourth and fifth graders descended on the Dodge County Fairgrounds near Beaver Dam with 600 teachers and chaperones in tow. They came from as far away as Taylor County, some sponsored by local conservation clubs that were eager to help their community youth get excited about the outdoors and test drive dozens of outdoor pursuits. Really big tents in part of the fairgrounds were focal points for seven different "camps" that offered hands-on experiences in archery, camping and trail recreation, fishing, firearm safety (with BB guns), sporting dogs, wildlife identification, wildlife calling and tracking, and outdoor heritage. School groups came on Friday and on Saturday, the same programs were offered so families and a wider public could take part in the expo. More than 1,100 parents, grandparents, friends and children attended on Saturday. And all of this was provided free of charge! "The expo was created to foster a relationship between Wisconsin families and the outdoors," Smith adds.

Making it happen behind the scenes

The program was free to participants, but the event certainly was not cost-free. More than 70 organizations and individuals provided financial support and staffing assistance to make the expo possible. Each camp was sponsored by an organization that provided the expertise to explain and build enthusiasm for an outdoor skill. The groups hope to inspire participants to consider an outdoor hobby that would make outdoor recreation a more lasting part of their lives. Nearly 300 volunteers were recruited to make sure everything from parking to pointing dog demonstrations went smoothly.

Activities were designed to be fun, easy to try and close at hand. Young students and families stood within feet of live raptors. Participants shot BBs at targets under the watchful eye of certified hunter education instructors. Children and students dove into the latest in tent technologies provided by Gander Mountain. DNR biologists brought their famous traveling fish tank and throughout the expo grounds, kids were heard squealing "I got to hold a fish!"

Outdoor venues included:

  • Archery – sponsored by the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association. Participants were coached on safely handling and using archery equipment. They then moved to one of 40 target lanes to receive one-on-one guidance in shooting either a recurve or compound bow.
  • Outdoor Heritage – sponsored by the Conservation Congress Outdoor Heritage Committee. Participants learned about fur trapping, Native American culture, historic campaigns to build support for conservation, and even were visited by an actor who recreated the look and words of one of America's greatest conservationists, President Teddy Roosevelt.
  • Wildlife Trail – sponsored by the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. Participants explored grasslands, wetlands and forests to learn which species live in each habitat and to look for tracks and signs of animals. Live birds of prey gave the budding birdwatchers a chance to gaze through binoculars to look for clues in identifying different species. Then students puckered up to try their skill at calling ducks, geese, turkeys and elk. They also got to duck in to see what it looks like from inside a hunting blind.
  • Sporting Dogs – sponsored by the Wisconsin Association of Field Trial Clubs. Pointing and retrieving dogs showed their stuff finding birds and following commands from their owners.
  • Fishing – sponsored by Trout Unlimited and The Musky Clubs Alliance. Everyone got to try their hand tying panfish flies then learning to cast with a fly rod or spinning rod. It was fun identifying the fish swimming in an enormous fish tank.
  • Firearm Safety – sponsored by Wisconsin DNR Law Enforcement. Certainly a popular stop at the expo. Students got instruction on safe firearm handling from certified hunter education instructors and conservation wardens, then the kids were escorted for one-on-one help target shooting at a BB-gun range. Each shooter got to keep his or her target as a memento of their experience.
  • Camping and Trail Recreation – sponsored by Gander Mountain and the Wisconsin ATV Association. Everyone got to crawl into the latest and greatest in tents, canoes, kayaks and camping gear. They could also hop on board ATVs and then take a ringside seat as experienced, trained riders demonstrated how to safely and responsibly operate these popular machines.

The partnerships and relationships formed to carry out the expo are still thriving beyond the event itself. The groups are forming the genesis of a coalition of conservation, education and economic interests that plan to keep working together to create positive changes in natural resource conservation. "Our first objective is to encourage participation," states Dan Gunderson, WOAF Executive Director. "Participation leads to appreciation and we hope that will inspire the actions necessary to protect habitat and wildlife in future generations. We want to bring down barriers between groups and interests, building a 'bigger tent' that becomes the home for our conservation legacy."

Healthy minds, bodies and ecosystems

Other preparations with teachers aimed to make the expo more than just a day away from the books. With support of the Department of Public Instruction, teachers received lesson plans and support materials so they could continue to tie the events offered at each camp into their core curriculum. Retired elementary school principal and Wisconsin Conservation Congress delegate Dick Pladies was instrumental in shaping the camp activities and developing a teacher guide that included pre-tests and post-tests, if the teachers wanted to use them.

In addition to providing connections that tied each event to math, science, language arts and social studies standards, outdoor expo activities also fit well with a national movement to keep children physically active, promote wellness and avoid childhood obesity. It's a disturbing trend that as participation in traditional field sports declines, young Americans are getting heavier. There's no direct correlation here, simply a reflection of the times and perhaps an explanation for declining participation in field sports. Young Americans are choosing more sedentary ways to spend their free time. A lifestyle including a heavy dose of field sports can provide many personal health benefits including strenuous exercise, better powers of observation, the knowledge to harvest nutritious natural foods and spiritual enrichment.

We suspect that studies of people who regularly get outdoors, away from the stresses of school and work would also show the benefits for their mental health of having noncompetitive experiences, breathing some fresh air, becoming aware of natural cycles and enjoying the solitude that can come from walking, hiking, hunting and fishing, Gunderson said. It's a win-win for participants and the environment as they develop a new appreciation and value for the experiences one can only have in natural settings.

Get involved in this year's expo

On May 18 and 19, 2007 the expo returns to the Dodge County Fairgrounds. Advance registration for the Friday school session already surpasses last year's attendance and a Saturday session will again be open to the public free of charge. What better way to start off the summer recreation season than to try out some new activities and consider what the outdoors offers? An important component of the planning is developing handouts and contacts for participants who want to find people and places near their homes to try their hand at a new hobby they got a taste of at the expo. If you are willing to work with children or belong to an outdoor club or organization that could help in that regard, by all means contact us.

Volunteers are also needed to help out on Outdoor Expo weekend in Beaver Dam in May. You can choose a particular camp based upon your interests; or can help out with a general duty such as security, parking or camp services. If your group can't come that day but wants to take part, financial sponsors are needed to rent 40'x100' tents, electrical generators and portable toilets, print programs and purchase materials for 5,000 or more participants. Almost $200,000 is needed to make this event happen! If you would like to help, call toll-free 1-877-WISEXPO or go to Wisconsin Outdoor Education Expo. Thanks for your enthusiasm and support.

Jeff Pritzl is DNR's wildlife biologist in Manitowoc, Kewaunee and Door counties.