WASHINGTON - Students from New York to Alaska will be exploring forests and wetlands this year as part of an effort by the U.S. Forest Service to get kids out of the classroom and into the woods.
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The $1.5 million "Kids in the Woods" program is aimed at a growing problem among American school children: a lack of direct experience with nature that experts say can contribute to childhood obesity, diabetes and even attention deficit disorder.
The program also is intended to nurture future environmental scientists and other Forest Service workers - an acute need for an agency with a graying work force, said Deputy Forest Service Chief Ann Bartuska.
"It's an opportunity to connect kids to our national forests and to other outdoor settings," she said. "We are taking this in our broadest mission."
The grant program includes 24 projects in 15 states, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than 23,000 children are expected to participate in the program, which is supported by a host of private groups, as well as state, federal and local agencies.
The Forest Service is providing $500,000 in grants, with another $1 million provided by partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Botanical Garden and the Gates Foundation.
Bartuska said the grant program is an outgrowth of the Forest Service's centennial celebration in 2005, when officials were told they needed more outreach programs to encourage young people to get outdoors.
Richard Louv, a journalist and author of the 2005 book, "Last Child in the Woods," applauds the Forest Service effort.
Louv, a former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, says children are suffering from attention problems and higher rates of mental and physical illness because they aren't directly exposed to nature - a problem he calls a "nature-deficit disorder."
"The effort by the Forest Service is really significant," he said. "If kids are not going outside in nature who in the world is going to care about the spotted owl or any other endangered species?"
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