By Mark Costigan
reprinted from The Oregon Daily Emerald


Andrew Nyman, Associate Professor Wetland Wildlife ... Andrew Nyman, Associate Professor Wetland Wildlife Management & Ecology of LSU AgCenter, takes samples of beach sand beside oil booms at the coast of South Pass, south of Venice, Louisiana, where oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, May 2, 2010. A huge wind-driven oil slick bore down on the U.S. Gulf coast on Sunday, threatening an environmental catastrophe, and the Obama administration heaped pressure on BP Plc to halt the uncontrolled spill from its ruptured Gulf of Mexico well. Since the explosion and sinking last week of the Deepwater Horizon rig, a disaster scenario has emerged with hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil spewing unchecked into the Gulf and moving inexorably northward to the coast. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

It’s sad that it takes a threat of crude oil reaching American beachfront property for people to wake up.

It seems the only way people unite around fighting environmental degradation is when the effects become visible and personal. If only there were some way to make the color of carbon dioxide highlighter yellow or jet black. Then perhaps people would wake up to the havoc they’re wreaking on my playground.

That’s right. My personal playground, the outdoors, continues to get pushed around like a new kid being picked on by a 12-year-old bully — except nature is a little older than the humans who bully it.

It took 24 days in the wilderness with the National Outdoor Leadership School for me to wake up to the effects of climate change. A month before moving to Eugene, I embarked on an outdoor educator expedition in the Absaroka wilderness in Wyoming. Between eating a third of the amount of food I normally eat, nearly dying on a glacier, and conquering 13,000-foot peaks, the expedition not only gave me a new appreciation for wild places, but it humbled me to something similar to my original human form.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), environmental education “is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action.”

On paper, the United Nations has environmental education down to a tee. But even after a plethora of natural disasters, Washington remains the only state on the West Coast with a mandatory statute for environmental education in its public schools.

As a student of environmental education, I know how much my lifestyle has been impacted. But taxpayers like to see clear-cut results. While skeptics can write off the philosophic utopia of the U.N. “learning process” as unrealistic, they cannot deny the positive influence of mandatory environmental education on the schools, livelihoods, and landscapes of Washington.

In 2004, the Washington State Legislature requested a “report card on the status of environmental education.” For two years they conducted surveys, community meetings, and one-on-one interviews. In addition to the conservation benefits, the reports found that environmental education programs even boosted standardized test scores. The report card also determined that environmental education saves taxpayers money by getting schools and communities involved in natural resource research.

Lower taxes and higher test scores. Sounds like a million-dollar idea to me.

In the wake of the failed “No Child Left Behind’” act and amid a global recession, adjusting science curriculum might be a feasible solution to some of the issues we face today. But even if educational reform is slow and unlikely, there are a number of other ways the public can be educated about what’s worth saving for their future grandchildren. Personally, I’m a big advocate of organizations that look at wilderness areas as a classroom.

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is an institution that combines wilderness exploration with environmental ethics. It even offers transferable college credit in upper division environmental studies courses for virtually the same cost. If NOLS sounds out of the question for you, it’s pretty easy to be a “weekend warrior” as a student when your incidental fee gives you a membership to the Outdoor Program. Non-students can become a member for as little as $15 a year.

“We try to get students from all skill-levels into wild places at a low cost so that they can see what’s worth protecting,” said Outdoor Program outreach coordinator Fred Sproat.

The Outdoor Program follows the national “leave no trace” ethics policy, and promotes environmentally proactive, minimum-impact trips. Whether it be whitewater rafting, backcountry skiing, or rock climbing, it has something for everyone. But in addition to options for thrill-seekers, it also organizes more direct ways to get involved with environmental efforts, such as their recent Rogue River cleanup. The role it plays in educating individuals about wild places in Oregon is truly unparalleled. But it needs help.

Maybe the British Petroleum oil rig explosion was what America needed. With both Democrats and Republicans recently supporting offshore drilling, it seemed like we had lost sight of the campaign promises we voted for. Now, more than ever, it’s time we start educating our youth to combat climate change. Whether it be through school field trips to national parks, or something as simple as a weekly hike with your family, outdoor exploration is often what reinforces the tired literature that gets pumped into science textbooks.

It’s time to get outside to see what’s worth protecting.