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Why Parks Are Important


As part of our series on America's national parks, we'll talk about the importance of parks for communities.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and These Days continues its special broadcast from Cabrillo National Monument. As I've been saying, it's a beautiful, windy day down here. I think it's hot in the sun but we're in the shade so we're enjoying it very much. I'm here with my next guest who's Richard Louv. You know, any tribute to America's National Parks would be incomplete without talking about the importance of experiencing the natural world. As populations increase, as green areas shrink and as it becomes easier to stay indoors and play games, many educators and environmentalists say we and our children are losing touch with nature. And one man who has sounded the alarm is my next guest Richard Louv. His book "Last Child in the Woods" argues that direct exposure to nature is essential for kids to grow up healthy physically and emotionally. And adults, too, can suffer if their busy lives leave them without what Louv has termed "nature – leave them with 'nature deficit disorder.' In addition to writing "Last Child in the Woods," Richard Louv is the co-founder and chairman of the Children & Nature Network. And welcome to These Days, Richard.

RICHARD LOUV (Author): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now we'd like to invite our audience, again, to join the conversation. Are you concerned that your children may have a nature deficit? Are you getting out in the natural world yourself? Tell us what you're doing to keep connected with nature. Give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. So, being outside today at this beautiful Cabrillo National Monument seems like a great place to ask you, what have the national parks meant to you in your life, Richard?

LOUV: I think that they are both important to me and to many others both in their reality but also in their symbolism. Just this idea that wilderness is important to human beings, to their health, their mental health, their psychological health, to their sense of meaning in life. Even if someone has never gone to a national park, they receive that message every time they hear about national parks. That's the way they were set up from the beginning. Teddy Roosevelt certainly had a lot to do with that. I'm reading a great biography of him now by Douglas Brinkley, and it's just about his role as a naturalist and as one of the creators of the whole idea of national parks. And he actually, Brinkley actually writes in it that in his later years, Roosevelt actually said that it was immoral for parents to raise children who had a, quote, nature deficit, unquote, so…

CAVANAUGH: Leave it to Teddy.

LOUV: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Richard, how many – Do you know how many national parks that you've visited?

LOUV: Gosh, I don't know. Particularly recently, because I – I do a lot of speaking.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite?

LOUV: This one is way up there.


LOUV: And I – You know, where we're sitting right now, I come often. Yes, I was asking my wife when we were driving up, when was the last time we were here. We could – we couldn't remember but – which means we ought to come more.

CAVANAUGH: Well, every time you come back to the Cabrillo National Monument I think you're struck with really how exceptionally beautiful this location is.

LOUV: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: On all sides of you, you can see the ocean and various – the ocean, the bay, San Diego, it's an extraordinary place.

LOUV: And one of the important things about this park at Cabrillo is that it's in a city. It's so close to urban life. And I'm increasingly interested in what's called nearby nature, which I believe and many others believe, is just as important, in some ways more important, to human development than wilderness itself. It's extraordinarily important, essential, vital, that we have wilderness but to have national parks and other kinds of parks within, you know, a few minutes drive or walk or bicycle trip gives people something that they don't get anywhere else. There was a – Recently, the governor of Illinois, the new governor, not the guy that got ran (sic) out of town but the new governor, his first day he had a press conference and one of the first things he said is that it bothered him that kids in Illinois had nature deficit disorder.


LOUV: He'd been reading this book. And he said that one of the things his predecessor had done he didn't like is close six state parks. Three weeks later, the new governor of Illinois reopened the six, but maybe seven, state parks specifically because of the idea that nearby nature—most of these were kind of urban parks—nearby nature is essential for human health and particularly in a recession. Where are people going to go? One of the great good things that we've heard recently in terms of news is the attendance at many of the national parks is up. It was dropping radically for about 15 years, and recently that has turned around in many, you know, places. There are articles that are talking about this is the result of the recession, that, you know, people are taking advantage of these places near their homes for vacations, etcetera, they're cheaper, it's their – I think another reason may be this social movement that's been occurring over the last four years to get kids and families outdoors.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get your take on the discussions that we've heard recently about the budget cutting at California's state parks. Have you been involved in any of that discussion and what is your reaction?

LOUV: I've not been involved directly with that discussion, no. You know, budget issues aside, the last place we should be – one of the last places we should be cutting is in the relationship between opportunities for children to experience nature, and families and adults. There is a theory, a biophilia hypothesis, Theo Wilson of Harvard, that holds that we are hardwired to need nature as a species and that when we don't get enough of that, we don't do so well. And this has everything to do with many of the studies that have emerged in the last 15 years or so that really show that direct connection. So, you know, when you cut the state park budget, you're also cutting the health budget, you're cutting the mental health budget. You know, the – we're going to end up shifting illness that might not have happened onto the hospitals and emergency rooms when people have less contact with nature, less green in their lives. There was a recent study that showed that child obesity drops in those neighborhoods, is less in those neighborhoods that are greener, and this is true even in the inner cities. So it's independent of population density. So when we take away from parks, we're also taking away from the health of the state and then we're shifting that cost to the emergency rooms.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with author Richard Louv and he has written "Last Child in the Woods." He is the co-founder and chairman of the Children & Nature Network. And I mentioned "Last Child in the Woods" is your book, and we have been talking about some of the themes in that book as we're here at the Cabrillo National Monument on this Founders Day and broadcasting These Days in a special broadcast here. And I'm just wondering, you know, what's going on in our society that there is this nature deficit? Don't kids just naturally want to go outside and maybe climb a tree and play with bugs? What – Why are we experiencing this being out of touch with the green world?

LOUV: Well, a number of reasons. One of the reasons that people – first comes to people's minds is that the kids are on the computers and the video games, etcetera. I'm very hesitant to demonize video games and computers, obviously. I mean, they're a fact of life and that's a mistake tactically because many of us can remember rock 'n roll and the comic books and how we wanted those more when our adults started demonizing them, so that's not a good idea. Plus the fact, it's inaccurate. I mean, obviously, 44 hours a week spent plugged into some kind of electronic medium is going to have an effect but there are these other reasons that go deeper, perhaps, in some ways. One of them is the overstructuring of the children's lives. Parents, many of us, have this feeling that we have to enrich every second of our children's lives. We forget that nature is enriching and we think about nature experiences for our children as, you know, nice to have. Better get them into a Suzuki violin lesson therapy, that would be better than taking them there.


LOUV: But actually when you look at the studies that have emerged, it has everything, again, to do with child development. Attention deficit disorder goes down when kids get outside, and there's a whole series of studies at the University of Illinois that show that. But there – One of the reasons that this is happening, too, is urban design. It's very difficult for people to get to nature increasingly in the sterile suburbs, as we've been told. But also fear because parents were scared to death primarily of stranger danger. Without minimizing the fact that there is danger out there, it is true that the news media—and I've been part of that for a long time—have magnified that beyond reality, that the actual number of stranger abductions, for instance, is quite small. One is too many but the number is quite small compared to what people think. And so, you know, you have people basically raising kids under protective house arrest. It's not that there isn't risk out there, it's that we need to begin to think in terms of comparative risk. Yes, there's some risk; there's risk in nature, that's part of its attraction, but there's also risk in raising a generation under protective house arrest, a risk to their psychological health, their sense of connectedness to the community, a risk to their physical health. Ironically, pediatricians, you know, say that they don't see very many broken bones now. What they see are repetitive stress injuries which tend to last a lot longer than broken bones, typical broken bones. So, you know, all of those things are adding up and more to create this sense that nature is irrelevant to children's lives and nothing could be more untrue.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with author Richard Louv and we have been asking for you, if you'd like to, to join the conversation. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Right now John is on the line from Vista. Good morning, John, and welcome to These Days.

JOHN (Caller, Vista): …give me a call.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you.

JOHN: Can you hear me?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed.

JOHN: Hi, can you hear me? I'm sorry. I got discon…

CAVANAUGH: Okay, we're having trouble getting through to John.

JOHN: Hello? Hello?

CAVANAUGH: And maybe we can hear from Paul in north county? Good morning, Paul, can you hear me?

PAUL (Caller, North County): A great show and I look forward to the documentary, and I heartily endorse the concise and well-expressed points that Richard is making, especially with regard to the need for exposure to nature and the – I was so pleased and – that he brought up Theodore Roosevelt. I was a little surprised and perhaps a little chagrined to not hear his name mentioned with the earlier guests. So critical to exposure to the wilderness of the west. I would like to say that I think that that the two – We need to think of those two availabilities of exposure to nature: close by and far off and distant and more wild are not competitive but are complementary. I'd like to make one suggestion to the National Park Service. The – I've encountered them my entire life all over the country and I have loved every exposure, I believe. One of the nice things about the eastern parks like Acadia or Great Smoky Mountains is that it's so close to population centers that people can get exposure to them without having to even, in many cases, stay overnight or can just drive through them at very little expense. But many of the more grand and incredible features of nature in our western parks, Tetons, Glacier, Yellowstone and the others, say, in California of course, are rather difficult to reach unless you're a student on a backpacking trek or you're just devoting all of your time to it. It's hard for family exposure. I would like to point out that there are some ways in which it's becoming too expensive for families to have exposure to the great national parks, fees going up. I would like to point out that there are two free days during the year in which the National Park system waives all fees for entrances to the parks. I would like to see that expand to three or perhaps four a year. The other cost-saving measure that I've experienced in the past is the wonder of an annual park pass at a much lower rate than it would cost to even visit three or four parks during the year and my suggestion there is that there be a discount not just for seniors as there is but for students and perhaps also based on low income. I will just finish off with mentioning…

CAVANAUGH: Paul, thank you so much. You have given us…

PAUL: …that my favorite national park…

CAVANAUGH: …so much to talk about, Paul. I really appreciate your call. And he's taken us through some of the east coast parks and on the days that we can save money. Richard, I'm wondering, if parents do take their kids to a national park, what are some of the things you'd recommend they do?

LOUV: Well, first there's finding the national park or any park. You know, a lot of parents really – This is kind of an abstraction to them and one of the things I've been involved in recently in the Children & Nature Network, which I'm the chair of, is our sister website is called naturerocks and you – and parents and others can go to and there's a map there and you can put in your zip code and you can find nearby nature. You can find national parks, state parks, places to take your kids fishing, etcetera, etcetera. We're hoping that that helps parents make this a reality to their kids.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Daniel is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Daniel. Welcome to These Days.

DANIEL (Caller, Clairemont): Thank you for taking my call. Yes, can you hear me?


DANIEL: Hello?

CAVANAUGH: …certainly can.

DANIEL: Hello?

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Daniel. We're prob – we're having a problem with our callers. Thank you so much. I want to talk to you, Richard, about being president of the Children & Nature Network. Is the National Park Service involved in the Network in any way?

LOUV: It's involved in the Children & Nature movement and, yes, it's involved in the Network. What happened after the book came out, now the book isn't the only reason. The book's a useful tool for this movement. It was kind of a nascent, it was sitting out there waiting to happen. But in the last four years, over 60 urban regions have launched campaigns to get kids outdoors. After the book came out, it started happening. There are family nature clubs springing up all over the country, something we've been promoting. You can go to Children & Nature Network – I'm sorry, through the Children & Nature Network and you can download a free toolkit for creating your own family nature network. One of the – I'm sorry, one of – family nature club. One of the fellows who's a major conservationist at the San Diego Zoo was in an audience when I spoke a few months ago here in San Diego and he – he's in charge of the panda exhibit – collection there. And he immediately went out and started a family nature club because he saw this as a need for his kids. The parks have been involved. For instance, the Director of the Yellowstone National Park called for a national movement to get kids outdoors and became part of the – The former head of the National Park Service is on our board of advisors, Fran Mainella. But the important thing here is this movement that is almost self-generating now. I mean, it's not like it's being directed from central children and nature movement somewhere. It's just happening out there and it's quite – quite remarkable. It's a little bit like the moms against…

LOUV/CAVANAUGH: …drunk driving…

LOUV: …that phenomenon or the anti-smoking campaign, which just kind of took off and changed a culture almost overnight when you think about how fast things can change in a culture. We were hoping that that happens in our culture in terms of the connection, not only children – the adults to nature. The national parks are many of the places that are taking the lead on this.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder what is in that toolkit. You've piqued my interest. When you send that out to people, how – is it to form a club or is it to actually get their kids and introduce them to the natural world?

LOUV: Well, it's about – let me give you an example. The genesis of this idea was actually an e-mail that was sent to me, I think, a couple of years ago now by a second grade teacher and father in Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia. He and his wife had read "Last Child in the Woods" and some other material and had decided that they were going to get their kids out on weekends and they were all going to go as a family. By the way, family bonding is one of the very important issues here, one of the great attributes of getting kids outdoors. They started taking their kids and themselves to parks on weekends. Some of them, I'm sure, were national parks.


LOUV: One day the five-year-old pulled on his dad's pantleg and says, Dad, how come we're the only family having this much fun? And so he started inviting other families and I heard from him the other day. He has now something like 372 families on his e-mail list and what these families are doing is that they connect with each other through e-mail or that old-fashioned thing called the phone and they arrange to meet at the park on Saturday and do things collectively as several families together, two, three, five families at a time. What this does is several things. It deals with the fear issue because there's perceived safety in numbers. It also, any kind of family, you know, inner city, suburban can do this. Think how great this would be for a suburban – single parent families, and it's free. I mean, you don't have to wait for funding or some program, you can do it yourself and you can do it now as a family. It builds social capital. There's a lot of attributes to this and these are springing up all over the – all over the country. And think what would happen if that caught on like book clubs did in recent decades or the Neighborhood Watch programs. What if there were thousands of those all over the country? That would help change the culture a little bit, I think.

CAVANAUGH: It certainly would and it's – If that happens, please do come back and talk with us.

LOUV: And, by the way, I want to add there is…


LOUV: …a Children & Nature San Diego, which is a network. You can Google that and find the website for that. That's -- San Diego is now one of the 60 urban regions that have…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that's exciting.

LOUV: …launched some kind of campaign, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And that – that website again is…?

LOUV: I think it's the children and nature – childreninnaturesandiego, I think. I'm sorry. I should've written that down.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Or they can just Google it.

LOUV: Yeah, they can Google. It is new.


LOUV: They can also go to the Children & Nature Network website and there's a map of all these things all over the country and they'll find it there.

CAVANAUGH: Terrific. Richard Louv, thank you so much.

LOUV: Oh, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Richard Louv is the author of "Last Child in the Woods." We are broadcasting from the Cabrillo National Monument on the National Park Service Founders Day, and we'll meet some more people now who've come to visit Cabrillo Monument today. Here's Hank Crook.

HANK CROOK (KPBS Producer): Thank you, Maureen. I'm here with two people who are enjoying the beautiful weather here today at Cabrillo National Monument, and I'm going to introduce you to them. Hello, sir, what is your name?

LEONARD HIRSCH (Park Visitor): Leonard Hirsch.

CROOK: And where are you from?

HIRSCH: Coronado.

CROOK: And what is your name, ma'am?

BETTY NORMAN (Park Visitor): Betty Norman.

CROOK: Where are you from?

NORMAN: Solana Beach.

CROOK: So I'm going to start with you, Len. What national parks have you been to and – and any of them stick out to you as a favorite?

HIRSCH: Well, we've been to Bryce and Zion, Grand Canyon, Acadia, Yellowstone, Yosemite and, naturally, Cabrillo.

CROOK: And any one a favorite for you?

HIRSCH: It's hard to say. Each one has its own beauty and they're all spectacular. I like – I really don't have a favorite. I think they're all great.

CROOK: And what do you think about this place that we're at today, Cabrillo National Monument?

HIRSCH: I think it's spectacular, the panoramic view you have here, the tide pools, the lighthouses, the whale watching, it's – Whenever we have guests, this is one of the first places we bring them.

CROOK: Well, that's great. Thank you. And, Betty, what brings you here today?

NORMAN: Basically to enjoy the national park holiday but most of all it's a little bit of remembrance of having lived and grown up in this area. My father was a line officer at Fort Rosecrans. Came in 1941 and we lived here until late in 1944. Left the base daily to go out on our buses or jeeps to get to Cabrillo Elementary School, and I'd have to say our memories of this area would be, as youngsters, a lot more favorable perhaps than the adults because we spent a good deal of our time climbing the hills here. We knew probably the whole peninsula better than most of the adults did and, obviously, it was not a national park at that time. It was just a beautiful habitat for wildlife.

CROOK: Sure, and what are you looking forward the most to seeing or doing today?

NORMAN: I would say the military history. Obviously, they're doing several special presentations on that today. And then being able to just enjoy the entire park itself because it's outstanding and, like Len, every family member or friend that we have visit us in the San Diego area, we’re off to Cabrillo National park.

CROOK: Well, that is great. Thank you both for talking to us today. We really appreciate it.

NORMAN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And thank you, Hank. Before we leave this beautiful monument, I want to welcome back the rangers that work here at Cabrillo for some final thoughts. I want to welcome back Ranger Karl Pierce. Welcome.

KARL PIERCE (National Park Service Ranger): Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And welcome Rick Jenkins, joining us.

RICK JENKINS (National Park Service Ranger): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Ranger Rick Jenkins.

JENKINS: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it really has picked up here since we first started the broadcast. There are so many people, so many children. Have you seen the crowds, Karl?

PIERCE: I've been busy and haven't really had a chance to see the crowd today but I'm always loving seeing children here.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we've got a little audience here right now, a lot of school kids just looking at us broadcasting. And, as I said, that wind really picked up, didn't it?

PIERCE: Yeah, we needed it. It was kind of warm this morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. What – I want to ask you, Karl, what is the best part for you of working for the National Park Service?

PIERCE: After 22 years, it's the people, both the people I've worked with, like Rick, some of the most talented, dedicated people I've ever known, and then the people who come to the national parks. They're a lot of fun. People come here to have fun and enjoy themselves so it's usually a great job.

CAVANAUGH: And Ranger Rick, I hear that you're a newbie here.

JENKINS: Yeah, you could say that compared to the 22 years that Karl's been here.

CAVANAUGH: How long have you been here?

JENKINS: I'm – I've been here for about a year.

CAVANAUGH: Aha. And what do you see ahead of you in your service with the National Park Service?

JENKINS: Well, hopefully, doing more of what we've been doing, which is interacting with a lot of people, having a lot of fun while I'm doing that. And, hopefully, educating people about our cultural and natural resources so that they can take that home with them and, you know, really sort of think about that and care about that.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, a lot of people say that they want to become park rangers but they never actually do it. And, you know, we all know that neither one of you are going to get rich doing this.


CAVANAUGH: Does that come as a shock, Rick?

JENKINS: Well, as a, you know, as a recent college graduate, this is actually a very well paying job for me.

CAVANAUGH: Ah. I wonder why you decided to do this though?

JENKINS: Well, you know, I kind of fell into this job as a student and I – it – I was right down the street and it was just an awesome place that I knew was beautiful. And – But ever since that first day on the job, it's really been – become more of just that – it's been a – it's sort of a passion and, you know, every day I just enjoy being out here and, like Karl says, the people are great. The visitors teach me new things every day, and so I guess it's kind of a selfish thing. I get to be outdoors, I get to talk to people, and, you know, just enjoy that.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Karl, in the few moments that we have left, if there's anything you'd like our audience to know about how to be good guests at the national parks or here at Cabrillo National Monument?

PIERCE: Well, you know, there's a saying: Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. And we really need people to, when they go to the national parks or other park or open space areas, to be good stewards, take care of them. We're – You know, they talk about the police being the thin blue line, we're really the thin green line. And so the parks wouldn't be taken care of without the help of a lot of people, both visitors and great groups of volunteers. You know, we have our cooperating association, Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, that people can join, you know, our sponsors of this event. We'd like to thank all of them. And just get engaged, be involved. Take your kids to do a junior ranger program. Just visit, get engaged, learn about – as much as you can about it, volunteer.

CAVANAUGH: As I said, this was our final moment but I did want to have both of you on to give us a full and complete idea. I want to let everyone know that Founders Day celebration at the Cabrillo National Monument continues until five o'clock today. Still have lots of time to get down here if you'd like to see it. And if you want to find out a breakdown of the events, you can always go to the Events section at We have a line by line time – timeline of the events taking place here at Cabrillo National Monument. It has been a pleasure to have this special broadcast of These Days. I want to thank you, Ranger Karl Pierce, and Ranger Rick Jenkins. Thank you so much.

PIERCE: Thank you for coming out, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to remind everyone you have been listening to a special broadcast of These Days from the Cabrillo National Monument here on KPBS.

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