As I’m writing this message, I’m looking out my office windows at another brilliant summer afternoon. This time of year in the Seattle and the Pacific Northwest—clear skies, mountains on every horizon, sails carving up every lake and channel—is especially distracting, and we’re lucky that Summer Quarter is our quietest. Half of every class would be dreamily gazing outside and clamoring for an escape.
It often feels like a reflex or instinct, this yearning to be outdoors, reveling in the infinite variety and beauty of nature. But I have to remind myself that I grew up in a family that had me out skiing all winter, and on extended backpack trips in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Northern Michigan in the summer. We spent countless hours building fence lines, cutting firewood and enjoying every autumn and spring on land we owned and managed in western Wisconsin, or simply playing in the woods by our house on a daily basis.
Not everyone has that same access to parks, open lands or wilderness, or the same opportunities to take advantage of them. Similar to developing a taste for unique foods, our understanding and appreciation of the ‘outdoors’ often starts with exposure to nature on a regular basis, ideally starting at a young age. Without a daily diet of nature, many people never develop an overarching respect for the natural world, and the immense value of its resources. There’s nothing automatic or universal about developing that respect. It’s often the result of years of experience and exploration, honed throughout our lives like so many of our philosophies and passions.
That’s why our role at SEFS is so important. We invest a significant portion of our effort toward instilling our students with a deep sense of respect and value for natural and semi-natural places, with a special emphasis on forests. Our hope is that our students leave here with a sturdy land and conservation ethic, derived from a scientific understanding of how ecosystems function, and how we might best manage lands for the enduring integrity and benefit of humans and all living species alike.
However, as I’ve learned, the taste for nature is best developed young, so we’ve recently launched a number of programs with the goal of capturing the imaginations of young minds much earlier.
This past October, we successfully completed the first pilots of the Mount Rainier Institute (MRI), and this fall we’ll be welcoming the first full season of students. A partnership between Mount Rainier National Park and SEFS, MRI is a residential environmental learning center designed to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders. The program invites middle school students from all backgrounds—and especially from diverse communities with limited access to parks and other natural spaces—to spend four days and three nights at Pack Forest and Mount Rainier National Park. They learn science by doing science, testing skills like observation, inquiry, analysis, supporting claims with evidence, and presenting their findings. Through these hands-on experiments, along with other fun activities like night hikes and campfires, they build confidence in being outdoors and, we hope, form the beginnings of their own land ethic.
Around the same time last year, we also kicked off a program at the UW Botanic Gardens that targets an even younger audience. The Fiddleheads Forest School immerses preschool-aged children in the natural world, introducing them to their relationships with trees, herbs, insects and mammals. It’s casual and playful, and these young students get to spend time in the beautiful outdoors classroom of the Washington Park Arboretum—an easy place to begin a lifelong love of nature.
Programs like these have me brimming with enthusiasm and confidence in the next generation of environmental leaders and resource managers. Because even if we can’t all grow up with regular access and exposure to nature, we can all grow into responsible stewards and ensure the long-term preservation of the landscapes we value so much.
Director, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences
Photo of Tom DeLuca © Tom DeLuca; photo of Mount Rainier Institute © Kevin Bacher/NPS.