11/04/2010 07:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Federal Investments Required to Expand Service and Learning Opportunities For Young People on Public Lands

The outdoors are one of the West's most valuable assets. They provide sustenance, recreation, energy and income. But our wild places are also our best classrooms, and with strong national leadership, we can continue to offer Western kids and young adults unique service and educational opportunities in the outdoors.

Too many young Americans are exercising their thumbs playing video games these days, instead of exercising their bodies playing outside. Too many children grow up in families that have never visited public lands or fished in a river or hiked a trail. And, because the recession has been particularly hard on young workers, too many are facing closed doors instead of looking forward to bright futures.

We've seen firsthand how a personal and physical connection with nature can change that. We've seen young people awestruck by our natural landscape and inspired to get up off the couch, explore the outdoors, provide service on our public lands, and learn about science.

We've seen how experiencing nature exercises the mind as well as the body - inspiring young people to ask questions about how our world works and how they can shape it. And we've seen how a first hike or climb can inspire pursuit of the knowledge and skills required for a career as a conservation professional or a scientist.

But that's not just our experience. A new National Wildlife Federation report confirms that spending time outdoors helps kids to become stronger students with fewer disciplinary problems and more enthusiasm for learning, who ultimately perform better on standardized tests.

For more than a decade, our organizations have engaged Western youth in education and conservation. The Southwest Conservation Corps has engaged thousands of young people in paid service - from middle school youth to Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan - to build stewardship skills by working on conservation projects that benefit people throughout the Southwest.

These young people represent a huge - mostly untapped - resource for meeting public lands needs across the country such as building trails, maintaining wildlife habitat and protecting communities from wildfire. Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) cultivates a passion for science, leadership, and service in a diverse community of learners.

Urban youth experience the outdoors, develop science skills, and explore the wide variety of natural resource careers available to them. Through multiple year programs, youth turn those experiences into not only high school, but college graduation. More than 80 percent of ELK's alumni study a science field in college, an amazing statistic for Latino and Black students.

But we can't do it alone. Continuing this success story and making these opportunities available to more American kids and young people requires federal leadership. That is why we were so pleased that the federal America's Great Outdoors Initiative held listening sessions in Golden and Grand Junction. These events gave everyday Americans - including children and young adults - a chance to talk firsthand with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other federal leaders about conservation and its personal impact on their lives.

One of the most important messages they heard was about the essential connection between conservation and education, with local residents calling for passage and allocation of resources to tools and programs to engage young people in the preservation of our natural heritage such as the Public Lands Service Corps Act and full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Federal Government should use these resources to build upon the existing network of conservation corps and environmental education programs to engage thousands more young people in public lands service, expose thousands more to the outdoors through environmental education, and invest in the lands that make these experiences possible.

The meetings were just the beginning. Federal officials are now compiling the lessons they learned and preparing a report for delivery to President Obama in November. That report will shape the future of America's conservation policy, and by extension, the lives of so many Western kids and young people whose future depends upon having opportunities to explore the outdoors or do work on public lands.

We all have an interest in sending Washington a message. They need to hear that investing in the outdoors and programs that provide educational and service opportunities for young people is the best way to help more American kids to build productive lives as the next generation of scientists, conservation leaders, and informed voters.