If you see any irony in a bunch of adults in a dark theater talking about getting more kids outdoors, then you grasp the extent of the problem confronted by the Missoula Children and Nature Summit.

Somewhere between Opie on "The Andy Griffith Show" and the invention of the home video game, we lost a generation that was comfortable out in the woods. If we don't turn that around, summit speakers warned, we may lose both the kids and the woods.

"We need to help children feel a part of nature, not apart from it," said Steve Archibald, an environmental program teacher from Darby who addressed about 125 people at the University of Montana on Thursday afternoon. "It's a community effort that takes a lifetime to achieve."

Between the baby boomers and Generation Y, the United States saw a steep decline in outdoor enthusiasm and a corresponding increase in obesity, heart disease, emotional disturbance and other problems.

Missoula City-County Health Department health promotion director Greg Oliver acknowledged that correlation isn't the same as cause. But it is well established that a vigorous lifestyle leads to better health, and the Great Outdoors is an underutilized exercise opportunity. The trick, he said, is to figure out how to get people interested in using it.

Hence, the creation of a new network of teachers, organization leaders, business owners and government officials in pursuit of ways to make that connection. Missoula Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler convened Thursday's gathering to help those people meet one another and brainstorm new ways to get kids outdoors.

"We're trying to reach the families who are least likely to reach nature play easily," Gaukler said. "We want to help them find meaningful experiences that they can re-create later."

The obstacles include lack of time, money, access and skills. When Americans retreated from the outdoors, they never learned to fish or tie knots or sleep comfortably in the woods. A big focus of the summit was finding people willing to teach those skills to kids and families that lack them.

Mullan Trail District Boy Scout representative John Keefe said Missoula Scouts have been steadily declining in numbers over the years. A large part of that is due to the heavy parental involvement built into the Boy Scout experience, he said. Overworked parents would rather drop their kids off in some organized sporting league than get involved with the more expansive Scouting program.

One idea Keefe took away from Thursday's gathering was the possibility of getting more senior citizens interested in helping youngsters with outdoor clubs and activities. Those people have both the skills and the time to volunteer, if they could be mobilized.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rick Potts, the National Park Service's chief of conservation and outdoor recreation, worked the room in search of 18- to 30-year-olds who were interested in sharing their time and skills. Those Generation Y members have shown a strong uptick in outdoor interest, and they also have the social networking skills to tie together new outdoors opportunities, he said.

"We need to establish mentor relationships with someone who's savvy," Potts said. "Your job is to help someone else - show them the way to be safe."

Failure to do so, Potts said, would not only perpetuate the growing health problems associated with couch-potato lifestyles, it would also deprive the nation's open spaces of advocates willing to fight for their maintenance and preservation.

"If those places are not relevant to us now," Potts said, "future generations won't have them."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com

No reason to fear the outdoors, director says

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

The reason many parents no longer tell their kids to get out of the house and not come back until dark is fear.

That fear is unfounded, according to Rick Potts, National Park Service conservation and outdoor recreation division director. But its prevalence has put kids across the country on a short leash and deprived them of connections to the outdoors.

"A false perception has developed that the outdoors are more dangerous than they used to be," Potts said Thursday during a break at the Missoula Children and Nature summit. "In fact, stranger-danger is less a threat now than it was when we were kids growing up."

Potts, 56, cited FBI crime data showing that the incidence of criminals kidnapping or hurting children has gone down in the past several decades, although the number of kids hurt by their own families has risen. The problem is that when a child is attacked away from home, it tends to get publicized far out of proportion to its actual frequency.

"The purveyors of fear have been selling us a bill of goods," Potts said. "When in fact, the outdoors is among the safest choices available to us as Americans."

Potts recalled how he and his wife were backpacking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness when the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks occurred. When they came out, they felt that an unreasonable fear had permeated all aspects of society.

"The country was in a state of comatose shock," he said. "And I think it was from four or five days of watching an endless loop of those planes hitting the towers, over and over again on TV. Meanwhile, we were safer and felt safer in the Bob Marshall. It's a haven from fear."

People also fear their inexperience in the woods, and so never get started going outside. Fortunately, sales data from outdoor gear merchants show today's college students and young adults are buying more technical outdoor gear than their parents did, and putting it to use. Potts took that as a heartening trend.

"More people are disgruntled with the 2-D experience," Potts said. "They're starting to look behind the monitor and say, 'This isn't real, it isn't satisfactory and I want to find what's real.' "