Add some nature to your New Year’s resolutions. You’ll be healthier for it.
A large and growing body of research supports the idea that getting outdoors — on national wildlife refuges, for example — can improve your peace of mind and physical well-being.
Many refuges are working with their communities to strengthen that health-and-nature connection. They’re expanding trails, teaching outdoor skills, sending nature broadcasts to sick children and taking other creative steps.
Visitors say the efforts mesh with their day-to-day concerns.
“Health is a concern of the majority of residents of Mountain View,” says neighborhood association president Juan Lopez, who’s working with Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and others to improve health and access to green space for the industrial area near Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The refuge, he says, has helped by extending a bike trail from the refuge to the community, clearing an abandoned city lot to plant a pollinator garden, planning a nature-themed kids’ space in a neighborhood clinic and creating events to draw area residents to the refuge. “Just being out in nature helps a lot with mental health,” says Lopez.
In California, biochemist Tim Keung raves about the outdoor yoga classes he takes every spring and summer at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, led by refuge outdoor recreation planner Carmen Leong-Minch. The refuge also offers a monthly “nature walk for health.”
“For me, just to be out there, it’s just heaven,” says Keung. “It’s like icing on a cake to be able to do yoga outside, breathe fresh air, feel sunshine on you. It’s better than any experience you could find at a gym.”
In the Alaskan village of Akiak, on Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Yupik leader and substance-and-behavior-abuse counselor Mike Williams Sr. thanks area refuges for helping to encourage Alaska Natives to live healthy, substance-free lives. .
Williams spreads that message by competing in the Iditarod — the annual dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome. In the lower 48 states, the race tends to be viewed as an extreme endurance event. In Alaska, it’s more closely identified with cultural heritage and healthy outdoor living. “I’ve been mushing for sobriety and wellness since 1992,” says Williams.
The Iditarod race trail runs adjacent to Koyukuk, Nowitna and Innoko National Wildlife Refuges, and one year crossed Koyukuk Refuge. Refuge staff often help at race checkpoints in McGrath and Galena. They also promote the value of traditional, healthy outdoor lifestyles and teach villagers gun safety, trapping skills, wilderness safety and observation skills, and the use of local edible and medicinal plants.
At some refuges, new health connections are just beginning. Last fall, just over a year after African American sorority Zeta Phi Beta, Inc. teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get youth into healthy outdoor recreation, members of the group’s Monroe, Louisiana, chapter visited Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Nine adults and 12 children joined in.
“We walked the trails. We got our heart rate up and we communed with nature,” said chapter president Sandra Winding. “Some of our sorority sisters — we don’t really get up and walk like we should. We walked a half mile before they knew it. One of the women said to me, ‘Well, I’m not used to walking that far.’ I said, ‘Of course you aren’t.’ It was fun. We’re planning a trip back."
The Houston Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership is working with the Katy Prairie Conservancy to provide virtual field trips for kids at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center. The “Virtually Wild!” broadcasts don’t come from refuges yet — there’s no WiFi signal — but refuges get a plug. “We say, for instance, ‘This is a great horned owl, and if you go to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, you might see one,'” says Southwest regional urban coordinator Nancy Brown.
“Gosh, if anybody needs nature, it’s these kids,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to distract them from their illness, give them something else to think about.” A recent video broadcast showed a bird being treated at the Wildlife Center of Texas, a wildlife rehab facility. “Who can relate better to a little injured owl than a child at the center?” Brown asks. “It’s a message of hope: This little bird is getting better. You can get better.”
Partnerships are key to many refuge health-and-nature initiatives. In Oregon, Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge partners with Soul River Inc. Runs Wild, a nonprofit founded by Navy veteran Chad Brown. Brown says fly-fishing helped him deal with PTSD; now, he and the refuge bring inner-city youth and military veterans together on local rivers to heal and learn from one another.
In Florida, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge supervisory park ranger Robin Will represents the Service on a Florida coalition that, with a grant from health insurer Florida Blue, has trained more than 75 Leon County physicians to write “nature prescriptions” for their patients. “The refuge is a resource for physicians to give their patients to get outdoors,” says Will.
In her non-work hours, Service biologist and Outdoor Afro leader Tamara Johnson leads “healing hikes” in Atlanta-area green spaces. “A lot of us have dealt with micro and macro aggressions,” she says, and have learned defense mechanisms. “A healing hike creates a safe place where you can take off all that armor and you can rest…. It’s a time to reflect and a time to release.”
Is all this effort worth the trouble? Absolutely, say those involved.
“We think it fits right in line with what we should be doing as an urban refuge,” says Valle de Oro Refuge manager Jennifer Owen-White.
“One of the standards of excellence for an urban refuge is ‘Be a community asset.’ We knew that the health of the Mountain View neighborhood was really important to the community. So we knew to be an asset, we should help with this goal.”
“It’s easier to convey the importance of outdoor spaces when people see connections to their everyday lives.”
Other refuge staff see themselves in the connections business, too. At Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Refuge, Leong-Minch moves seamlessly from yoga to nature: For example: “Tree pose (a one-legged balancing posture) is the perfect pose to talk about why birds stand on one leg,” she says.
At Koyukuk Refuge in Alaska, ranger Karin Bodony teaches Alaska Natives to use plants for food and medicinal purposes, re-connecting them to parts of their cultural heritage with which some have lost touch and helping them live more independently. That “supports health and well-being, both physical and spiritual,” she says. “It’s part of our establishing purpose. It’s understood that people are part of ecosystem here.”
“I think that connection [between health and nature] is what makes our jobs vital,” she says, speaking for many of her colleagues all over the country.
Photo album, health and nature: https://flic.kr/s/aHskux4p18