Saturday, October 25, 2008

Is it Worth the Money to Awaken Curiosity?

by Larry Nooden
The following editorial appeared in the Ann Arbor News, October 12, 2008. Although the specific topic is renewal of a Washtenaw county millage, the arguments for natural spaces can apply to any locale. Nooden is President of the Huron Valley Botanical Club. Used with permission of the author.

The upcoming millage renewal for Washtenaw County parks (County Proposal A) provides an opportunity and reasons to consider what this park system has done and can do for us. It has provided very diverse recreational opportunities for Washtenaw County residents, and it has contributed significantly to open space/natural area preservation. As this park system develops, it will exert even more impact on the quality of our lives.

I think it may be helpful for Washtenaw County residents to be more aware of several less visible aspects of what the system does, particularly in natural areas and outdoor recreation.

As our society continues to lose its connection with nature and the outdoors, we are increasingly being conditioned to life in a steel and concrete world, and our younger generations are becoming more sedentary. There is some evidence that our connection to nature is buried deep in our soul and our prehistory, so learning to understand and enjoy nature can provide not only healthy exercise but serenity and spiritual mending that is difficult to achieve otherwise. The interpretive program helps with this understanding as well as with science education.

I see the greatest value in outdoor and nature education for children. This awakens their natural curiosity, develops their observation/analytical abilities and provides an important gateway into science. These parks also provide both cerebral and physical exercise and recreation for adults.

As our society witnesses the continuing disappearance of undeveloped open space, especially natural areas, more people are concerned about this visible requiem for nature. Washtenaw County parks, alone and in conjunction with several partners (e.g., the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, Ann Arbor Greenbelt Program, and Scio Township Land Preservation Program) have succeeded in preserving some of the best of the best.

The purchases of land for preservation and public use over the next few years will likely lay out the basic framework for natural areas and outdoor recreation for the next 200 years. The current real estate problems may extend these opportunities for a few years and reduce their cost. These are valuable opportunities.

They have also played an important role in bringing about a framework of paved hike-bike trails that offer both recreational and transportation options, but this is very much a work in progress. I have lived (i.e., Canberra, Australia) or spent a lot of time (i.e., Sweden) in areas where these trails are very well-developed, and I have experienced the very positive effect that they have on the quality of life. The Swedes even use them for recreation and commuting in poor weather (wearing rain suits). Washtenaw County parks and their partners (especially the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority) are working hard to develop more of these trails, so the best is yet to come for Washtenaw County.

Trails and natural areas can be positively synergistic if smartly combined. Some sensitive natural areas should be penetrated only by footpaths, if at all. However, well-placed and not-too-wide paved trails enhance public access, increase appreciation, serve an educational function and may even be useful to protect protect natural areas where some maintenance is required. For example, a trail may serve as a fire break in an area that requires occasional fire for its maintenance (many communities around here do). In addition, trails and their surrounding land may serve as natural connectors or corridors for biological/genetic interchange among natural areas (an important longterm conservation need) if they have some natural vegetation. This natural border also enhances the ambiance of the trails for users.

As Ann Arbor continues to morph toward a steel and concrete world resembling that of the sci-fi film "The Matrix,'' we will need these natural areas even more. Furthermore, it seems likely that more of our recreation will be close to home. This is also an economic issue, because the knowledge-based industries that everyone wants to attract look for this type of infrastructure. I hope my fellow citizens will appreciate the opportunities and life enhancements that this millage offers.

See Michigan Botanical Club
These links are checked on the date of the article. As the article ages, some links may become invalid

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