01/31/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

National Parks Help Tame the Environmental Crisis

Environmental literacy is critical to conserving and protecting our natural resources and ensuring a healthy planet. How can we expect our policy makers, citizens and children to make decisions that will protect the planet if they do not value our wild places or understand the threat of global climate change? It is time to look beyond the classroom and recognize the power of nature and the power of education in our national parks.

Last week, I was invited to attend America's Summit on National Parks: Taking Action for a New Century in Washington, D.C. The summit made history by connecting leaders from the worlds of conservation, philanthropy, recreation and economic development. Discussions focused on "A Call to Action," a five-year action plan that will take the National Park Service to its centennial in 2016.

NatureBridge's Executive Vice President, Jason Morris, appeared on the "Connecting Youth through Education," panel. He made the case for field science educational centers across the U.S. It was clear from the discussion that we must collaborate to build a blueprint for a national strategy around education within the parks.

I have a vision for the future. Let's create an environmental education information cloud where our best ideas are shared; where educators, government agencies and non-profits can learn from each other and leverage the work we are already doing. The cloud is where like-minded leaders and organizations can work together to expand programs, share resources and ensure that every child has the opportunity to become environmentally literate.

Only five percent of our school children have a meaningful experience in national parks. What happens in the environmental education cloud can increase that number.

There are 397 national parks in the U.S. and they encompass 84.4 million acres. Each park and every acre represents a place where our nation's children can learn about STEM, geography, history and climate change. They can discover a sense of place and learn the value of becoming an environmental steward.

We have seen this work. Each year NatureBridge reaches more than 40,000 students, teachers and adults. We see "wow" moments every single day. A student arrives at Olympic National Park after an early morning bus ride and has no idea what to imagine. Her expectations aren't high, but as she exits the bus, skyscraper trees surround her, and there is a beauty she didn't know existed. Educators teach her about ecosystems. Her hands touch the trees and mosses, and she glides across a still lake in a canoe, taking in the tapestry of mountain peaks, breathtaking rainforests and wildlife. She has a newfound respect for the environment and has been instilled with a strong sense of responsibility for the way we consume resources. She is changed forever by her visit to this national park and the environmental education experience we have provided.

There are excellent education programs in parks already that we can unleash into our cloud: Teacher to Ranger to Teacher, Junior Ranger and NatureBridge programs for students, teachers and families. However, the environmental education cloud can do more! If we build a cloud we can go beyond the parks and take our lessons and information back to our communities. We can inspire a world where conservation is the norm, where children turn off the faucets when they brush their teeth, where we leave no trace, where everyone strives to reduce, reuse and recycle.

We must work together to tame the environmental crisis and open the doors to education in all national parks. Our vision of creating an environmental education cloud is one solution to building a more sustainable future for our planet. While we form this portal, let's not forget that everyone has a part in shaping this cloud and the future of environmental education. Here's how you can help now:

  • Write to your state governor, senator, or members of Congress in support of environmental education.
  • Work with your child's school to plan a trip to a national park.
  • Explore what national park-based programs are available in your community or nearby.
  • Take your family to a national park and ask about volunteer opportunities for education programs.

Like our national parks, an environmental education cloud has the power to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards.