The frost clinging to our pop-up camper is starting to slowly melt on this frigid morning in Yellowstone National Park. Mom is the first to wake (as usual) and starts to prep our breakfast. A loud, “AHH!” promptly wakes up the rest of the family. Alarmed, I look over to my mom - who is staring out of our open camper door, locking eyes with a very large bison. My brother and I, extremely amused, unzip our windows to find bison completely surrounding our campsite! I am fascinated and excited to be so close to these incredible animals. The rest of my family, however, does not share my enthusiasm and are not happy to be stuck inside the camper all morning, surrounded by large and potentially dangerous animals.
I will remember that morning for the rest of my life. It is just one of countless memories from my family’s trip to Yellowstone when I was 10 years old. In fact, when I reflect on my most cherished childhood memories, almost all of them took place on public lands. Hunting and fishing with my father in National Forests; anticipation and excitement as my mother tirelessly planned trips; watching her cooking bacon outside our camper, even in the dumping snow; catching frogs and splashing in rivers with my brother at the Grand Tetons...these experiences and places made me who I am today. The strong connections I have with our public lands inspires me to protect these places and to hopefully help others understand and appreciate their importance.
While I was fortunate that my family actively experienced the outdoors, this appears to be less and less common for families today. When I heard about the Obama Administration’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative, I wanted to figure out a way for Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), where I work as an Environmental Educator, to facilitate the program in our area.
Every Kid in a Park is a federal program that provides every fourth grade student in the country a free National Park pass in an effort to encourage school children and their families to use our public lands. After a bit of research about how to get involved, ACES decided to physically hand out the complimentary park passes to 333 fourth grade students at Aspen, Basalt and Crystal River Elementary Schools. We operate full-time ACES Ed classrooms within these three schools where, in total, 32% of the students are English Language Learners, and 43% qualify for free/reduced lunches. In addition to these three full-time classrooms, ACES Ed provides integrated environmental science education for over 50 regional schools, building ecological literacy and helping schools meet state science standards by blending science, critical thinking, and outdoor hands on learning.
As my personal experiences demonstrate, outdoor learning extends beyond classrooms to family experiences, so the Every Kid in a Park program naturally supports ACES' environmental education work. With this in mind, ACES Educators coorindated with the National Park Service to hand out the complimentary park passes at Back to School Nights, where we talked to the students and their parents about the importance of public lands, how public lands relate to our nation's water and energy dependency (topics that we are covering in class), and where nearby National Parks and monuments are located.
In addition to park passes, ACES handed out a preliminary assessment to discover how often students were already using our public lands and how they feel about them. We will be completing post-assessments at the end of the school year to see if anything has changed after a year of complimentary National Park access. After collecting the preliminary assessments, the results are in! Out of the 333 assessments distributed, we received 134 back (a 40% return rate overall). Specifically, we had a 47% return rate from Aspen Elementary School, a 28% return rate from Basalt Elementary School, and a 46% return rate from Crystal River Elementary School in Carbondale. We took some time to analyze our data below. Check back at the end of the school year for our post-assessment results!
|The first question we asked our students was “In the past year, how many times has your family been camping?” - and the results were pretty split! The majority of our students (30.8%) had been camping six or more times, but the second largest student percentage (21.4%), hadn’t been camping at all this year.|
|The second question was, “In the past year, how many National Parks have you visited?” We found that 25.7% of our students had visited two parks, while the next largest proportion (22.1%) hadn’t been to a National Park yet this year. Only 6% of students had visited five or more parks.|
|When asked “How many National Parks have you visited in your lifetime?”, we had pretty even results. The largest percentage of students (18.3%) had visited 5-6 parks, while 17.4% had visited 11 or more parks and 12.2% hasn’t ever visited a park. |
|Lastly, we asked students to agree or disagree with a perception statement; “I believe public lands are important.” Most of our students (81.2%) “strongly agreed” with the statement, but we also had four students (3.6%) say that they “strongly disagreed” with the statement. |
Public lands provide recreational opportunities, land, water, energy resources, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and much more. Public lands also ensure the protection of our national treasures. In order to maintain public lands, however, citizens need to care about them. The best way to do that is to go out and experience what our public lands have to offer! Thanks to the National Park Service and with help from ACES, hundreds of Roaring Fork Valley students and their families will have free access to these irreplaceable lands for a full year.
I can feel the spirit of our public lands pumping through my veins and impassioning my soul. Through my countless (and hopefully endless) experiences with public lands, I have become insatiably passionate about protecting them. But it is the future generations that truly excites me: I have seen first hand that students of all ages truly care about the environment they've inherited. I wake up every morning hoping to further inspire these future stewards to experience these places and take action, because as Theodore Roosevelt said "The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”
~ Matt Thomas, ACES Educator
Photographs courtesy of Matt Thomas