Outdoor School for All: Building Tomorrow’s Conservation Movement Today

By by Nick Hardigg, Audubon Society of Portland Executive Director

How does a state become a national leader for conservation? Since about 1970, Oregon’s pioneer spirit expressed itself through such landmark pieces of legislation as our nation’s first Bottle Bill, Beach Bill, Bike Bill, our Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, State Land Use Bill, and others. We were even the  first state to ban CFCs, which started a worldwide movement that saved the ozone layer of the whole Earth!

It wasn’t always that way in Oregon. Fortunately there came a turning point when we ceased to view our wild lands as sources of wealth to exploit, but rather as forests and streams where we could explore, admire, wade, and jump: precious sources of health and quality of life.

How did this tremendous change in attitude and action come about? Audubon Society of Portland has been inspiring conservationists since 1902. Yet arguably one of Oregon’s most in influential conservation triumphs began back in the 1950s with an experimental education program that came to be known as “Outdoor School.” Soon after, almost every Oregon sixth grader had the opportunity to attend a week of hands-on science education in the woods. By the 1980s, upwards of 90% of Oregon children were immersed in the state’s legacy, learning the critical thinking skills and knowledge of how to be good stewards of this magical place. Since the mid-90s, with passage of Measure 5, school funding has dwindled, and so has funding for Outdoor School. Now just over 50% of students receive a camp experience, while record numbers remain increasingly indoors. Latest studies show the average child spends 9–11 hours a day on a screen!

We can’t allow our conservation base to continue to wither behind glowing tablets. At Portland Audubon, our mission is to inspire all people to love and to protect Nature. Our greatest opportunity in decades to inspire all Oregonians — from all walks of life, all regions, all economic backgrounds — is by providing dedicated and full funding for Outdoor School. Every child needs to experience the beauty and magic of the wild outdoors, and to become an advocate for its protection. Our own school programs and summer camps reach about 12,000 kids annually, but they are just a sliver of what could be achieved through statewide funding.

That’s why I have requested, and our board has approved, that Portland Audubon take a leadership role in securing funding for every child to attend Outdoor School through a statewide ballot initiative this November. The measure will provide up to $22 million annually from Oregon Lottery proceeds (projected to surpass $500 million in 2015), while protecting current lottery allocations for conservation and education. If we’re successful — and together we can be — more than a half-million students will get to experience Outdoor School over the next decade. Fortunately, polling on the measure looks positive. But it will require your help to collect over 100,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, and to educate the public that they need to vote “yes!” for Outdoor School for All in November.

We’ll provide more information in the months ahead about this pivotal campaign for Oregon’s future, through the Warbler and online. In the meantime, you can  find out more at www.OutdoorSchoolForAll.org and add your signature to the list of more than 100,000 we’re helping to collect. The next legacy achievement for Portland Audubon lies before us, and 2016 promises to be of historic impact.

(Republished from The Warbler, Audubon Society of Portland newsletter, Jan/Feb 2016 edition.)