Forest Service aims to get kids in woods

WASHINGTON - Students from New York to Alaska will be exploring forests and wetlands as part of an effort by the U.S. Forest Service to get kids out of the classroom and into the woods.

The $1.5 million "Kids in the Woods" program is aimed at a growing problem among U.S. school children: a lack of direct experience with nature that experts say can contribute to childhood obesity, diabetes and even attention deficit disorder.

The program also is intended to nurture future environmental scientists and other Forest Service workers - an acute need for an agency with a graying work force, said Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell.

"We can help address troubling declines we see in the mental and physical health of our children. At the same time, we can inspire future conservation leaders, who can perpetuate the critical role nature role forests play in the quality of life for Americans," Kimbell said at a news conference Tuesday.

23,000 children

The grant program includes 24 projects in 15 states, mostly in the West. More than 23,000 children are expected to participate in the program, which is supported by a host of private groups, as well as state, federal and local agencies.

The Forest Service is providing $500,000 in grants, with another $1 million provided by partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Botanical Garden and the Gates Foundation.

In one project, students from the Harlem Link Charter School in New York City will explore forests and wetlands in the New York region, including the botanical garden and the Meadowlands Environmental Center in New Jersey.

At Mount St. Helens

In the Northwest, scholarship assistance will help 800 children attend educational programs at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington state. The program also will provide overnight trips for students in the Seattle area to learn more about conservation and environmental stewardship.

Author Richard Louv, whose book "Last Child in the Woods" helped draw attention to the gap between kids and nature, applauded the Forest Service program. Louv called nature as essential to children's' health as nutrition and adequate sleep.

"If kids are not going outside in nature who in the world is going to care about the spotted owl or any other endangered species?" he said.

On the web

List of projects: www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/woods/index.shtml

Children and Nature Network: www.cnaturenet.org