Pandemic boosted interest in outdoors
Last July, I wrote a blog titled, “Has the pandemic saved outdoor recreation?” The post detailed the unique circumstances of an outdoors resurgence with hundreds of thousands of new Pennsylvanians turning to nature-based recreation to combat “cabin fever” brought on by the COVID-19 lockdown, reversing a spiraling trend of diminished participation.
At that time, I reported that: more than 1 million state park visits occurred in 2020 than in 2019; the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission sold 130,000 more fishing licenses and nearly 42,000 more launch permits by July than in the entire previous year combined; and the Pennsylvania Game Commission saw an 8% license sales increase, even before antlerless tag applications were due.
By all measures, the answer to the title question is a resounding “YES!”
And entering the summer of 2021, initial indications show this pattern continuing with interest in camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, boating and walking remaining high on the preferred recreation list.
“Pennsylvania’s 121 state parks and 2.2-million acres of state forest are accessible to anyone,” said PA Parks and Forest Foundation President Marci Mowery. “Spending time outdoors is highly regarded as a stress reliever and memory making opportunity, especially for families. While the number one reason cited for not getting outdoors is time, the pandemic proved that when people have time, they go.”
Nature Educator Hunter Kauffman of the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art agreed.
“We’ve seen more people on the trails at the nature center than ever before. Motivations for going range from having an appreciation for the outdoors, relaxation and a sense of exploration to looking for a place to gather, wanting to learn something new and simply getting out of the house,” Kauffman said.
More people with a vested interest in the outdoors is great news. Not only does it preserve Pennsylvania’s longtime outdoor heritage, but it also boosts outdoor industry sales, promotes conservation of natural resources, and brings greater awareness to the many benefits of spending time in nature.
The greatest challenge is balancing all of this new interest with a resource-first mindset and retaining the interest in years to come.
Abbie Shireman serves as an R3 Coordinator for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. R3 stands for recruitment, retention, and reactivation – three important terms the NWTF uses for growing hunter-conservationist ranks.
“It is super important to not only recruit new individuals, but to keep those individuals engaged so they stay active for many years. If they do lapse, it often takes a friend or relative to reengage them,” Shireman said. “In many cases, those in their 30s or 40s can serve as a driving force for both recruitment of kids and reactivation of the Boomer generation, getting their parents to take up hunting or fishing again, which they may have given up for a number of years. On either end of the spectrum, spending quality time together outdoors in a lifelong hobby that can be enjoyed at any age.”
Shireman admitted it was difficult for her organization to host many of the events of the R3 initiative, such as Jakes youth hunts, Wheelin’ Sportsmen events and Women in the Outdoors gatherings, as a result of COVID-19 precautions and protocols this past year. But she looks forward to relaunching these programs as soon as it is safe to do so and doesn’t discount the value of personal one-on-one mentoring.
Longtime mentor and educator John Annoni utilizes a 5E strategy for systematic growth at Camp Compass, a program designed to introduce inner-city youth to outdoor experiences and keep them active through adulthood.
“First comes exposure and exploration to pique their interest. Once they feel this is something they really want to try, we get into extension where they begin to learn more about the outdoors and the skills involved. Next is effective application, where they are learning to apply their new skills in a controlled setting, followed by example mentoring, where they are actively hunting or fishing,” Annoni explained.
“The key is to take them to places they can get back to and to measure success by their standards, not our own standards. Educate them and let them determine their own goals, and when a dog can point, you let it point.” Annoni said.
“We need to cultivate mentoring relationships that help them experience that shaky hand rush we all get when harvesting a deer or landing a fish – but to do it on their terms. That experience will keep them coming back long after our work is complete. When I die, I hope it continues because of what I’ve done,” Annoni said.
There’s no better time than the present to bring people into the outdoors and to keep them there. It may take some effort, patience, and guidance by more experienced mentors, and a willingness to learn and grow by novice enthusiasts. But the collective outdoor ranks could very well be stronger than ever if both parties work together to seize this prime opportunity during one of history’s more interesting moments for outdoor recreation.