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July 18, 2013

Sierra Club Brings Nature to People

Palm-Beach-ICO-tripPalm Beach ICO participants learn about local critters.

By Daniel Onken, Sierra Club Media Intern

The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Boundary Waters are all marvels of the natural world, unlike any others on Earth. But in today's technology-driven world, it is all too easy for people to feel separated and alienated from our planet's natural features. Faraway places often feel like a postcard, and are not real or relevant in people's daily lives. Luckily, there are ways to bring nature to the people. Inner City Outings (ICO) is one program offered by the Sierra Club that aims to do this.

Sierra Club Inner City Outings is a community outreach program that provides opportunities for youth and adults to explore, enjoy, and protect the natural world -- valuable experiences for many who otherwise may not have easy access to the outdoors. This is done through more than 50 volunteer-run groups that conduct over 900 outings every year. Teaching youth about teamwork and conservation, while building self-esteem in the process, this program aims to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, has a chance to witness the natural beauty of our country. When these children and adults return home from an ICO outing they have a newfound respect for nature, from national monuments to the parks in their own backyards.

Roger Johnston, chair of Angeles ICO in Los Angeles, has seen many benefits for children and parents alike. His group organizes three-to-six mile day hikes to wilderness areas such as Malibu Creek and Topanga state parks, overnight camping, beach cleanups, and other outdoor activities.

"Most of the children have never been to the local mountains" says Johnston. "They are thrilled to see deer, coyotes, lizards, turtles, and birds."

Boston-ICO-tripBoston ICO participants reading a map while sailing.

He also talks about how the group strives to educate youth about the importance of conservation. "We observe and talk about flora, fauna, habitats, erosion, the interconnections between species, and the impact of people on the environment. We instill respect for nature by requiring the students to leave their lunch spot completely litter-free, teaching them that fauna and flora are to be left untouched, and saying the only thing they should take home from the park are pictures."

The importance of getting people into the nature around them is not only of value to our environment, but also our livelihoods. "Gallup's Well-Being Index found that people who live in close proximity to parks have fewer headaches, lower obesity rates -- even up to 25 percent fewer heart attacks," says Jackie Ostfeld, Policy Manager for the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors program, in her Huffington Post article Greening Away the Girth. "Not only does access to parks, playgrounds, and green space increase our likelihood of being physically fit, but the prevalence of parks and green spaces in our communities has also been associated with lower rates of asthma among children, higher property values, and even crime reduction."

Sadly, Ostfeld says, there are some major roadblocks of the "nearby nature" crusade. "Many people don't have 'nearby nature' -- only one in five kids can walk to a park or playground -- so distance is an issue. Park and play deserts, a lack of transportation, stranger danger, safety, and overscheduled kids and adults are all factors contributing to the indoor-oriented and increasingly sedentary lifestyles of many Americans."

The Sierra Club is working hard to close this divide between people and nature. In addition to the ICO program, Ostfeld points out that the Club's Local Outings and the Military Families and Veterans Initiative -- both under the umbrella of Mission Outdoors -- lead nearly 250,000 people each year into the outdoors.

Palm-Beach-ICO-tripPalm Beach ICO participants at MacArthur State Park, Florida.

By motivating people to connect with the green spaces in their local communities, the Sierra Club's "Our Wild America: Nearby Nature" campaign is another step towards garnering appreciation for nature and wild places. The Nearby Nature program works to increase access to parks and the outdoors in places where people live -- primarily urban areas.

By bringing nature to people who otherwise wouldn't have the chance to witness and experience it, we can ensure that conservation is at the forefront of American minds. Says Ostfeld: "If you ask any conservation leader what inspired them to want to protect the environment, hands down they will tell you about some experience they had visiting a national park or other outdoors space with their family as a kid. We know that the great outdoors has the power to inspire."

It is easy to protect the natural outdoor places we love. Nature to the people!

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