We were able to get permission to post the text from the Plenary Speech by Dr. Aaron Adams at the Florida Outdoor Writers Association Annual Meeting in 2011. The speach was a call to action for outdoor writers to do a better job of educating anglers, hunters, and others about the need for conservation. The speech was given at the Annual Meeting dinner on August 24, 2011.
Florida Outdoor Writer’s Association
Title: Educating Outdoors Enthusiasts: Closing the gap between sport and conservation
August 24, 2011
As it did for many of you, my interest in the outdoors began early. I was already an avid angler by the age of five. But my interest in fishing quickly evolved into an interest in answering the ‘why’ questions about fish, not just how to catch them. That interest eventually led to a career in fish ecology. But my passion for fishing never waned, and continues to this day. With these duel passions competing for my time, the line between fishing and science blurred for me a long time ago, and now each informs the other.
One of the advantages or disadvantages of studying fish as well as being an avid angler is that I get an advanced warning, and in many respects a deeper understanding, of troubles for our fisheries and coastal resources. I say this can be a disadvantage because at times it would be nice to adhere to the philosophy of ‘ignorance is bliss’ rather than have a preview of what is most likely to come. Or even worse, to know what has caused declines in environmental health in one location, and see the same path being followed in another, knowing the inevitable end. But it is also an advantage because the knowledge provides motivation and helps to direct my thoughts on how to communicate the need for fishing and conservation to go hand in hand. I think the same can be said for just about any outdoor activity.
As outdoor writers, we have a large stage from which to educate and excite people about the outdoors. Both are challenges that are increasingly difficult as we move through the 21st century. But our stage also bestows on us a certain amount of responsibility to ensure that we work to ensure a healthy outdoors to future generations.
I don’t want to imply that it is all gloom and doom, because it’s not. But maintaining a healthy outdoor industry is also not free, and it’s not going to be done by that ‘somebody else’ that everyone seems to know but can never identify. It requires a constant and renewed effort to make sure that those involved in outdoor activities are as active in stewardship as they are in fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, surfing, or any other outdoor activity.
So this talk is a bit of a challenge to all outdoor writers, myself included, to do a better job of integrating responsible behavior and conservation into their stories. I think we can do this without losing the edge of excitement and adventure that we need to keep in our stories to make sure they are read, and that we are paid. This is especially challenging in the world of instant gratification and ten second attention spans. But it can be done. We just have to keep at it and come up with more imaginative ways to express it.
Most of us have been involved in the outdoors for long enough that we can pull on our own experiences as motivation, and even as examples, for writing about conservation. One of my main motivators is the Chesapeake Bay. As I grew up, the Bay was in the midst of its demise. I remember, at a young enough age that my parents had to drive me, attending one of the early public meetings that eventually led to the rather large federal and state effort to protect and restore the Bay. I attended the meeting because I wanted to better understand the collapse of the Bay’s fisheries, why it wasn’t worth even fishing for striped bass, aka Rockfish, in the Bay. Since that time, I’ve been able to use that experience in my writing. Sometimes I use the Bay as a direct example of what can happen without conservation. But most of the time I use my experience to outline an issue. Charlotte Harbor, where I now live, is a good example. In writing about Charlotte Harbor fishing and conservation, I use my knowledge of the Bay’s decline to frame the relationship between natural river flows and good fishing: In Charlotte Harbor it is the Peace River that flows into the top of the estuary; in the Chesapeake Bay, it is the Susquehanna. The affects of each river’s flows in the estuary on fishing is the same.
There are many challenges we face as outdoor writers as we work to communicate the importance of conservation to the world of outdoor recreation, too many to cover in one sitting. So I’ll tackle what I think is one of the biggest challenges - the accelerating trend of urbanization. And for people like me who focus on our coastlines, this is heightened by the fact that much of this urbanization is occurring along the coast.
As of 2002, 14% of the United States’ coastal habitats had been developed. This is expected to rise to 25% by 2015. With each piece of coastal habitat lost, we lose some of the value of the outdoors.
As our society gets more urbanized, it becomes less connected to the outdoors. Rather than the outdoors being a regular part of their lives, the outdoors has become an occasional recreation for many, an infrequent diversion for some, and nonexistent for others.
Perhaps the top challenge I see is what I call the Disneyfication of Nature. This is the phenomenon of people using and treating the outdoors like an amusement park. They show up, maybe pay a fee, have a good time, and go home. They see it as an experience that is enjoyed for a day, but that someone else takes care of so that it can be enjoyed again at a later date. There are numerous challenges presented by the changing way of our society’s interaction with the outdoors.
First, there is a lack of personal involvement in stewardship. It’s all being taken care of by that elusive ‘someone else’. It’s like riding a roller coaster at an amusement park – you assume that the proper maintenance has been done, and it usually has. But in the world of the outdoors, we are not only the ones riding the roller coaster, we are also the maintenance crew. As outdoor writers, we need to do a better job at connecting a person’s outdoor experience with stewardship and conservation.
To paraphrase Fly angler and author Chico Fernandez – there was a time we could go fishing, have fun, go home, and not think about it until the next fishing trip. Now, we have to become involved if we want these resources here for our kids.
Fly angler Joan Wulff had another great line – Back when we were having so much fun flats fishing in the Keys, I just assumed that someone was keeping an eye on it and taking care of it.
Second, there may be some appreciation for the experience, but frequently not an understanding about why and how it all works. As with so many pursuits in life, the more knowledge one has about something, the more they get out of it. Too often, as outdoor writers we are willing to just ride the surface without digging deeper into the experience. In doing so, I think we shortchange ourselves as well as our readers. As we dig deeper, we learn more, and that new knowledge makes us better writers, more able to connect with our readers. It also makes our stories stand out from the crowd.
Digging past the surface is a tough challenge, but one that we can meet. One of my favorite personal examples is a tale of two mangrove creeks. Imagine two tidal mangrove creeks, each lined by mangroves, winding through mangrove wetland to the bay. Launch your kayak near the head of the creek and paddle your way toward the mouth. Walls of mangroves and occasional tunnels under overhanging branches isolate you from the outside world. The green of the mangroves reflects on the smooth water surface.
From the seat of your kayak, both creeks are the same, and apparently offer the same outdoor experience. But in reality, one creek is healthy, full of fish, crabs, oysters, snails, wading birds. The other creek if very sick. It drains a watershed that is full of industrial development, and the runoff has done a number on the creek. There are few fish and crabs, and that oysters and snails were once present is revealed only by empty shells.
Unfortunately, this isn’t imaginary, it’s real.
Another challenge brought on by the Disneyfication of Nature is that outdoor recreation is becoming observational rather than interactive. Compare activities like fishing and hunting to boating and windsurfing. None are bad. None are better than the other. But combined with the other factors I’ve already addressed, without education from outdoor writers, some of these activities serve to further distance the user from the conservation aspect of the outdoors.
In Florida, we are presented with a special challenge – educating rookies on a daily basis. Florida has a constantly changing population. Every day more people move to the state, and enter the world of Florida’s outdoors like kids in a candy store – it’s all new and fantastic, and seemingly endless. Many of these people come from other climates, and are wowed by the palm trees. Many come from areas where an interaction with nature might be a visit to the zoo.
In any case, for each new arrival in Florida, they hit the reset button. For them, their view of Florida starts when they arrive. This is what Florida is supposed to look like. They have no historical context. A term has been coined for this – Sliding Historical Baseline. The term was originally coined to describe the difference in perspectives between generations, but things are moving too rapidly in Florida to think in generational terms. I think we have to think in small bunches of years.
The challenge for outdoor writers is that on the one hand the newbies have to be educated. On the other hand, if all we write is basic stuff for the newbies, the more experienced readers will go elsewhere.
We have to do something about the generation gap. When I was growing up, I learned the basics about fishing, canoeing, the general outdoors and how to behave from my parents, uncle, and g
grandparents. In large part, that’s not true today. So many in younger generations lack mentors. Kids and even adults become interested in the outdoors on their own, and stumble through as they feel their way through new experiences. This can be an exciting way to learn, but it’s probably not going to get them very far down the road of conservation. This is not only true in general, but in the world of outdoor communication as well.
The lack of mentors is exacerbated by the overall lack of communication and understanding between generations. There are a lot of younger generation people doing some good stuff in the world of outdoor media, but in much of their product there is little about conservation. They are doomed to repeat our failures unless we inject some of what we know. We can look at this as competition from a younger generation or as a way to transfer our knowledge, and perhaps even learn some things ourselves.
So now what? I’ve painted a picture of an increasingly urbanized population that is disconnected from the outdoors except for their occasional forays into nature’s version of an amusement park, dominated by young, unmentored, short attention span punks. Sounds perfect.
As I said some minutes ago, it’s not all gloom and doom. In fact, there is a lot of cause for optimism. I think we just need to adjust how we approach things. So I offer some thoughts on where to go from here, knowing full well that to some extent I’m building a straw man – but that’s part of the point, to get us thinking about new ways to do this.
From a perspective that is purely conservation science, the greatest threat to the outdoor lifestyle is habitat loss. This is true in Florida, and is true worldwide.
Let’s take a fish population as an example. One that isn’t influenced by fishing. What factors limit the population size? Food, shelter from predation, and spawning success. All of these depend upon how much habitat is available. Worldwide, habitat loss and degradation is the biggest threat to coastal fish populations and their associated ecosystems. The same can be said for birds and most other terrestrial animals. So I think that one goal of outdoor writers is to educate the user groups about this. How many recreational anglers realize the importance of healthy habitats to their fisheries? Very few. And this isn’t limited to anglers, but is an issue in every outdoor user group.
As I mentioned previously, we need to dig deeper. We have to explain what lies beneath. What makes the outdoors that we like work. What are the non-obvious aspects of the outdoors that would be interesting to readers if only they knew about them? The deeper the understanding, the more likely a user of the outdoors is going to become involved in conservation.
It seems that no one wants to hear directly about conservation, a soap box speech. Editors frequently tell me that they won’t run a purely conservation piece because their readers don’t read them. An alternative is what I call the ‘soft sell’ – an exciting story that brings in the reader, but that has a strong conservation message within. A perfect job is one in which the reader learns something without knowing it. My experience with the television series Pirates of the Flats and Buccaneers and Bones has proven to me the success of this approach.
We need to figure out a way to Feed the Information Generation. Work with and educate some of the younger generation that is energetically interacting with their peers, and break through the generation gap. The kids know how to present it, but they generally lack the information and knowledge, which is something we can provide. I’ve noticed that for many kids the appeal of the outdoors, the energy they put into it, is increased when they understand that it is under threat. But it has to go beyond things like recycling projects.
First Look Within. Just because people enjoy the outdoors doesn’t mean that they act responsibly. Educating users of the outdoors about responsible behavior is low hanging fruit. In my realm, things like boaters running through seagrass beds and creating prop scars is tops on my list. Responsible boating is another hot item – there is no reason to run on plane 100 feet from another boat with people fishing, yet it happens frequently. Catch and release fishing is a great conservation tool, but only if catch and release practices are properly applied. They frequently are not. I’m sure you can think of similar examples in your area of concentration. These affronts are typically not purposeful, they result from a lack of knowledge. We can change that.
We have to do a better job at reaching the people outside the church. It’s relatively easy to write a piece about outdoor adventure and conservation for a publication that appeals to people that feel the same way. It’s a good way to pay the bills, too. But the people who are part of the theme-park outdoors group won’t read those articles. We need to figure out new ways to reach them because it’s typically not about ‘not caring’, it’s about ‘not knowing’.
The End Game
I think it comes down to this. If we are to perpetuate the outdoors industry that we have enjoyed, we need to find ways to get more people involved, re-engage those lost, and create good stewards. Good stewards need to be informed – even if they might not make the same decisions we would, they at least need to be informed decisions.
We can certainly do a better job at reaching the older generations, but to a certain extent their patterns are already set. The future of outdoors is in the younger generations, and they are more detached than ever. But they are reachable.