PUBLISHED: 5:30 PM on Wednesday, February 13, 2008
It pays to get kids outdoors
There's a long running public information campaign that asks "Parents, it's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"

Where ever they are, it's probably not outdoors.

Even in Alaska, we have fewer young people hunting, fishing and camping.

Nationwide the number of licensed hunters has declined about 10 percent over the past 10 years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife statistics.

It's beyond hunting and fishing

A report for National Public Radio last week cited that most outdoor activities-camping, hiking, skiing-have declined in popularity about one percent a year for the past 20 years. That means a quarter of enthusiasts for some outdoor sports have walked away since the late 1980s.

That is a threat looming like global warming for natural resources and wildlife, especially in Alaska.

It is the active participants that pay, through fees and taxes and donations to conservation groups, for most of the conservation work done in America. No participants, no funds.

Nationwide, 34 million sportsmen age 16 and older spent more than $76 billion in 2006, supporting 1.6 million jobs, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

In Alaska, about 25 percent of our citizens hunt or fish-149,000 resident sportsmen in 2006, according to the latest USFW report. Alaska sportsmen spent an estimated $662 million in 2006, creating 10,000 jobs and almost $300 million in salaries and wages.

Visitors come and pay well to experience briefly what we live with and enjoy every day. In 2006 non-resident fishermen (156,000) exceeded resident anglers (137,000) and sport angling put more than a half billion dollars into the state's economy. That's four-fold the amount generated by Alaska hunting. So a small decline in visiting fishermen can have a big impact on our recreational economy.

In Alaska we have a long-term vested interest in a well-educated, outdoor-minded next generation beyond our own citizens.

If the next generation, both here and down South, knows wildlife only through YouTube, how will they vote by ballot and checkbook? And if they don't care about wild things and places, how hard will they try to understand the unique challenges we face in managing Alaska's resources?

Imagine trying to explain wildlife management, dare I suggest even predator control or subsistence hunting, to a voter who's never been off the paved road.

You need look no further than current debates on the Pebble Mine or ANWAR to understand how opinions down South affect what happens to Alaskans.

So what does it take to get kids interested?

Nothing but a chance-and adults willing to offer it.

A landmark Texas study a decade ago zeroed in on factors that keep young people from taking up hunting-and the same rules apply to all outdoor recreation:

1) New hunters always come from a hunting family;

2) Kids keep hunting because of support from friends and family;

3) Women learn to hunt from their fathers or husbands, usually in their 20s; and

4) Boys learn to hunt from their fathers, uncles or male mentors, usually by age 14.

More states are looking at conservation education in schools. The Juneau program that gets all 6th graders through Hunter Education training is a superb model that organizers hope to expand statewide.

But only New Mexico has mandatory hunter education for all school kids. This week West Virginia announced it may consider similar plans, because a drop in licensed hunters is creating a substantial budget shortfall in that state's conservation division.

But school programs are just a start. The shorter the program and the farther from the family, the less likely its participants will develop outdoor habits.

To develop outdoor habits, young people need an outdoor mentor.

For us that love the outdoors, we have to look beyond our own families. It's the kid down the street, the kid at church, the kid from broken homes or with overworked parents that needs our invitation to get outdoors.

They are all our kids.

It's not too early to start. Last week's huge turnout for Eaglecrest's Learn to Ski weekend proved, whether it's playing in the snow or learning to hunt or fish, kids are eager for opportunities.

We need to be equally eager to take them along.

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire. Email him at