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I have made a habit of asking ardent supporters of conservation — from members of The Nature Conservancy’s board of directors to the volunteer docents at a neighborhood nature reserve — why they care about conservation. The answer, almost inevitably, is some memorable or inspiring experience in nature.

So what will happen if future generations of potential conservation supporters aren’t having those direct experiences? Is conservation then in trouble?

That is essentially the question asked by Patty Zaradic, Oliver Pergams, and myself in a new article now published in the journal PLoS Online. We analyzed long-time series of data regarding donations to major U.S. conservation NGOs and rates of nature-based recreation in the United States. Our results are provocative: We find evidence that per-capita rates of backpacking and hiking are strongly related to per-capita rates of conservation giving.

Specifically: Each hiker or backpacker translates to $200-300 of future annual giving to conservation, typically 10+ years after their hiking and backpacking experiences.

But why does that mean conservation might be in trouble?

Obviously, the statistics in these analyses are complicated and the evidence is not as compelling as an experiment — we are talking about “correlations.” Critics will say correlation does not imply causation. We agree. But when you do the sort of randomization approaches we used to assess the significance of our results, you realize how hard it is to uncover a significant link by chance alone.

There are some fine points of this analysis worth belaboring:

  • First, it is “per capita,” and everything is in terms of the per-individual likelihood of supporting conservation, and the individuals’ probability of having gone out and hiked or backpacked. Hiking trails near large urban centers may well be crowded with hikers, yet on average individuals in that city are less and less likely to go hiking on their weekends.
  • Second, the exact type of nature recreation matters. We find this link between hiking and backpacking and giving — not for just visiting Bureau of Land Management lands, or for playing soccer in the great outdoors.
The reason our analyses should be followed up by better studies is simple: If our conclusions are right, then conservation could be in big trouble. Why? Because after one accounts for growing population levels, the current generation of children is simply not getting the nature recreation that previous generations did. How can you love nature if you do not know nature?

My experience is that conservation is a passion — it is not something you do because scientists write papers about its value, papers that the New York Times then covers. All that analytical science stuff is backfill after our heart has been grabbed.

But I love science, too. And there is a big scientific question that is begging to be studied. Increasingly, children experience the world virtually. Does “virtual nature” — videos, movies, TV and so on — have the ability to spark that love affair with nature? Or will only the real thing do?

We’ve all read stories about people falling in love over the Internet without actually meeting. If the same can happen with nature, then the Conservancy and all conservation NGO’s might consider a radical new approach to reaching the next generation of conservationists.

— Text by Peter Kareiva, Cool Green Science Blog

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