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News: Features & Opinions Archive (2013)

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Date: May 2013

Wildland Awareness & Educational Institute (WAEI)

WAEI, the Wildland Awareness & Educational Institute, is the new kid on the block among organizations whose focus is to connect people, especially youngsters, to nature. Susanne and Bret Roller, former district wildlife manager for State Division of Wildlife and professional outdoorsman & guide, respectively, established WAEI in 2008 with the mission "to raise awareness of natural resources and outdoor recreation, to cultivate tomorrow's conservation leaders and to foster a sense of appreciation for the natural world through engaging young adults, women and families in the outdoors." So what makes WAEI different from other organizations which seek to do very similar things? In interview, Susanne Roller stated that one of the unique features of WAEI is that they are not afraid to look outside the box for answers, to shift the paradigm from targeting youth alone to a three-pronged model: youth within the family structure; collegiate young adults; and women.

As Roller explained their philosophy, "…selecting targeted audiences where we can have the largest impact with the smallest number of resources in the shortest amount of time has become our obsession." Using a methodical and diagnostic approach, WAEI sought to identify measurable objectives in their outdoor programs, and to determine if these objectives were being met. "If we ran a program," said Roller, "we expected the program to result in new outdoor enthusiasts - new outdoor participants."

In the process of measuring the success of their programs, WAEI ended up shifting focus from targeting youth only to targeting families, and also targeting college students. Even more surprising, targeting those with no predisposition for outdoor pursuits or activities has resulted in the greatest number of converts. Bret Roller explains this seeming dichotomy in the following way:

"If you think back to why the outdoors is important to you, we bet you can think of a place, an event, maybe a particular animal that sparked your interest. That touched your soul. It was unlikely that the event was born of being taught in a classroom about how an ecosystem functions or through reading a biology book. It was likely an [emotional and personal] experience and that is what we must provide. Through hands-on recreational experiences, the outdoor enthusiast is born. The hunter develops a connection that cannot easily be put into words for those that do not take up the hunt. The hunter becomes the voice for the habitat. The angler becomes the voice for our waterways. The birder becomes the voice for our riparian areas. The hiker becomes the voice for the landscape. This is what collectively we can all work towards."

Photo - Wildland Awareness and Educational Institute (WAEI) THE FAMILIES PROGRAM

With youth from toddler through about age 17, parental participation is the largest factor in whether or not a child continues in outdoor pursuits, says Roller. She also highlighted special age-related challenges they face. For instance, the challenge of youth ages 6 to 12 is that the family must be involved in outdoor activities in order for the kids to sustain their interest, while for the 12 to 17 set, the challenge is that they'd rather hang with their peers than with their folks. Circumventing challenges like this is a huge part of WAEI's continuing program development.

Roller states that WAEI works with other organizations in the development, creation, and delivery of "Family Workshops," full-day events where parents or care givers are required to participate in the activity with their youngsters. Before and after lunch there are multi-hour activities which might range from wildlife ID to hiking to camping to fishing to archery, and even to map/compass/GPS use and firearm safety. The next step is to then connect those families to our open spaces, allowing them to duplicate what they've learned in the WAEI programs: http://www.waei.org/courses/


Photo - Wildland Awareness and Educational Institute (WAEI) The collegiate program is one of WAEI's most successful, and Roller's favorite. The program sells itself; it provides one elective credit toward graduation at CSU and UNC while getting college students out of the classroom and into the outdoors – what's not to love about a program like this?

Roller feels that this program has the most potential for positive impact, for two reasons: 1) the credit toward graduation brings in those who have no predisposition for the outdoors, thus breaking new ground in prospective supporters of Open Space; and 2) 98% of participants continue some form of recreation following the course, according to post-course surveys. Some 46% immediately purchase equipment, from archery to fishing to guidebooks, and seek out opportunities for continued participation, adding support to the outdoor recreation economy. These people vote, and they should become conservation-minded voters. The 700+ students who have gone through the WAEI collegiate program to date are part of the next generation of parents and leaders; it is WAEI's hope that, following their exposure to the program, these students will become life-long supporters of conservation.

The growth of the collegiate program was what spurred WAEI to create their outdoor classroom. As Roller explained, WAEI recognized the need to create an outdoor space where students of all ages, from family groups to college students to adults, can come together with partner organizations such as JeffCo Open Space, to learn about the outdoors. Roller's vision for the space is that it should be a place where restrictions do not inhibit the ability to fully teach about the outdoors, that it become the place where participants begin a life-long love affair with the outdoors. Once comfortable, the WAEI student can transfer skills learned to other public lands: http://www.waei.org/outdoor-workshops/college-students/

Photo - Wildland Awareness and Educational Institute (WAEI) THE WOMEN'S PROGRAM

Currently, WAEI is doing oneday classes for groups of women (10 or more) on a request-only basis. Prior to the downturn in the economy, they were hosting two women's weekends per year in a nationally-known program called “Becoming an Outdoors-Woman”, located at guest ranches around the state. Now, the cost of renting a guest ranch facility has put the fee out of the reach of most women. WAEI's goal is affordability as well as education (and conversion to an outdoors-lover), so that every mom, teacher, grandmother, aunt, sister and female friend could take part in these retreats. WAEI is building its own outdoor classroom with support and recommendations from its partners on 60 acres in the Conifer area. Once this is complete, they plan to offer a robust women's program at an affordable rate, and offer hands-on classes for large groups during weekends, in addition to hosting the growing collegiate program. The Greater Denver Area is home to more than 97,000 college students. Using this facility for their own programs, and making it available to other agencies and organizations that seek to connect youth and young adults to the outdoor world is a major goal of WAEI: http://www.waei.org/outdoor-workshops/becoming-anoutdoors-woman/

Photo - Wildland Awareness and Educational Institute (WAEI) FUTURE CHALLENGES

Of all the challenges facing Open Space and its continuity through the coming decades, Roller sees a disturbing trend – age. According to research done by Roller, in 2008, the average age of outdoor enthusiasts is 55. It's apparent that, as those folks hang up their hiking boots, they are not being replaced by younger users of the outdoors. Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, believes the lack of connection to the outdoors is today's largest threat facing conservation. The most-numerous group of users should be within the 20 to 30 year-old range and it should replenish itself, meaning that, as individuals age, this group continues to be a major segment of those who enjoy the outdoors. This is not happening today.

Were replenishment of that critical age demographic to happen, then we could be assured that the children were connecting to nature. If, at age 20 and on their own, these folks were to become regular users of the outdoors, then we could breathe easy about the future of Open Space. So it fits within the mission of WAEI as they reach out directly to these age groups – the 20-year-olds in the colleges, who become immediate and life-long users of the outdoors, and the 30-45 year old parents with families. Their different approach to engaging youth in the outdoors may be the secret sauce that sustains Open Space for the next 40 years, or the next 100!

Partnershipe Make a Difference 100!

WAEI partnered with the Wildlife Management Institute, an organization founded in 1911, which hosts the national North American Wildlife and Natural Resource conferences, held annually. WMI helped to strengthen the evaluations and measures which WAEI uses to determine its impact and success. These measures, plus the research WAEI does when designing their programs, is the paradigm shift which sets WAEI apart from the crowd: http://www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org/

WAEI attributes its success to the support and belief of its partners; working in partnership is key to making things happen. Partners include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Safari Club International, John Fielder's Colorado, National Park Service, USFS, USGS, numerous non-profits, Wyoming Game and Fish, and dozens more, all listed on the WAEI website: www.waei.org

The Challenges

The major environmental challenge in the beginning of the 20th century was species recovery. During the last quarter of the 20th Century, the challenge shifted to include land preservation and open space connectivity – shielding open space from suburban and exurban development while leaving wildlife corridors intact. The challenge for the beginning of the 21st Century lies in connecting and engaging youth to the outdoor world. If we fail, the end of the next 40 years of PLAN Jeffco will look vastly different than today – our society will be largely devoid of those that hold a land ethic at heart, who value our open spaces and public lands.

~ Susanne Roller, WAEI ~

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