Interior Secretary Jewell talks with Scouts about getting more kids outside

These days, too many young people can name more species of Pokémon than they can name species of plants and animals.

As the virtual world has become a child’s reality, his time spent outside has dwindled.

In her job as secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell wants to reverse that trend.

“The statistics aren’t great,” she said. “Young people between 6 and 18 spend about 56 hours a week in front of a screen.”

On Thursday in Washington, D.C., a group of Scouts met with Jewell to discuss ways to get young people away from screens and out into nature. The hourlong meeting represents a critical link between two groups with similar goals.

The Department of the Interior employs 70,000 people and oversees one out of every five acres of the nation’s lands, including national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands.

The BSA, with its iconic outdoor programs, has been helping to connect young people to those public lands for 106 years.

But Jewell wanted to dig deeper and ask the Scouts for their input on how her department can break down whatever barriers prevent young people from enjoying our public lands.

“Very, very few of your friends and neighbors of your age actually spend any time outdoors in an unstructured way,” she said.


Unstructured play

Jewell, the former president and CEO of REI, has always loved being outside. She was a Girl Scout and Camp Fire Girl.

“What I learned as a child getting out into nature and the outdoors shaped everything that I’m doing in this job today,” she said. “And Scouting is a wonderful way to learn about the natural world.”

Getting young people out into that natural world is a big step toward reversing what’s been called “nature deficit disorder.”

Dan Ta, an Eagle Scout from the Orange County Council, told Jewell how merely exposing children to the outdoors can spark something in them. He’s living proof.

“For me, before I went camping, backpacking, all the outdoorsy stuff — I didn’t really appreciate Mother Nature,” he said. “Once you’ve seen it, you don’t want to forget it.”

But it’s not just going outside that’s important; it’s having free time just to be a kid. That’s why many organized sports — though they offer many benefits — don’t count as unstructured play.

“Most of the time in sports there’s an adult telling you what to do,” Jewell said. “Most people when they graduate from high school become spectators. Only 2 percent will keep playing.”

So unstructured activities, like many we enjoy in Scouting, are vital.

“Sailing, swimming, backpacking, hiking, skiing, ice climbing … going on trails, walking — these are things that are kind of becoming lost because so much of young people’s time is taken up by homework, organized activities and sports,” Jewell said. “And that’s one of the things that Scouts teaches is self-sufficiency and leadership and outdoor skills.”


Serving in nature

For Hunter Jones, the meeting wasn’t about asking Jewell what she could do for Scouting; it was about asking what Scouting could do for our country’s public lands.

This comes as no surprise, considering that the Eagle Scout is National Chief of the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s service fraternity.

“We’re over 170,000 strong,” he said. “What is something that we could do to really help you out?”

Jewell said the department has service project needs all over the country. Not only does a project help leave our public lands better than Scouts found them, it also helps those who participate become inextricably linked to that spot.

“[Service] connects you to a place more than you’re ever expecting it’s going to,” she said. “And when you go back to that place, whether it’s a familiar place in your neighborhood or a long way away, you look at it differently.”

She challenged the BSA to involve non-Scouts in our service projects. Some packs and troops do that already, and it’s a great way to engage our communities and to reverse nature deficit disorder.

“If you want to have the most impact, find a project where you can help lead other students and young people,” Jewell said. “It begins to feed that part of their soul that’s being missed.”


Using technology for good

Jewell isn’t anti-technology. Resisting its encroachment is futile, and besides, she sees its potential to introduce young people to nature.

“How can we embrace technology in a way that inspires people to be outdoors, in nature?” she asked the Scouts.

She then shared one idea: a smartphone game built around competing to see who could locate and identify different plant, animal or insect species in nature. You’d snap a photo (or record an animal sound) and try to find more species and earn more points than your friends.

That same information could be anonymously uploaded to a scientific database to identify where invasive species are moving. The result: a harmonious blending of two seemingly warring worlds.

“Use the device to be outside, to look at nature,” Jewell said. “They invent all these characters, but we have all these incredible species that nobody knows about.”

What do you think?

How can we get more Scouts and young people into nature? How can we use technology as a tool to do so? Leave your thoughts as a comment below.

2015 Report to the Nation

Read more coverage from the 2015 Report to the Nation, happening Feb. 27 to March 3, 2016, right here. And see more photos here.

Photos by Michael Roytek and Randy Piland.


  1. Did anyone mention ending discrimination against atheists and agnostics? I’m thinking that would be helpful. Our current policy is a national embarrassment.

    • Considering every U.S. coin has the words “In God We Trust” on it; considering that every first Thursday in February is the National Prayer Breakfast attended by Congress and the President; considering that over 75% of the American population identifies as “religious”*, I’m not sure where you get the idea that “our current policy is a national embarrassment”. Our founding father, Lord Baden-Powell himself said, “There is no religious ‘side’ of the movement. The whole of it is based on religion, that is, on the realization and service of God.”
      *Pew Research Center’s report America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, May 12, 2015

    • Not sure I agree the current policy is an embarrassment, much less a national embarrassment. Policies are not set in stone. They can and will change when needed.

      I believe an argument exists in terms of any membership “standards” that effectively bars any boy from becoming a scout. Any time a membership standard stands in the way of a boy becoming a scout that is one more membership lost and one more youth who was unable to personally benefit from the scouting program.

      As a case in point: the BSA caved on membership standards in terms of sexual orientation yet less than two (2%) per cent of American males are homosexual. Since the membership change there has not been any surge in membership from the gay community. But as we all saw the policy was changed.

      In terms of belief in God nearly thirty (30%) per cent of Americans are atheists, agnostic, or have no religious affiliation. That is a huge number that is hard to ignore especially in terms of potential membership. Just as we all knew there were gay scouts and gay leaders in the program for years who were quietly flying under the radar there are far more scouts and leaders who quietly sidestep the question regarding belief in God and also quietly fly under the radar. The reality is there are a huge number of units that include nothing in their program in terms of Duty to God year after year and this is directly a result of adult leaders who either have no personal interest in religion or who do not know how to deliver a non-denominational program in a unit consisting of scouts who come from a variety of very different faith traditions and as a result simply choose to do nothing as the easiest solution.

      If the long term intent is to grow scouting and increase membership it will become harder and harder to achieve that goal in a dwindling pool of eligible boys if that pool continues to be based solely upon historic membership criteria.

  2. The media and the group’s you mentioned try to make it a source of embarrassment. As the commenter above indicates, belief in a higher power ( by whatever name) is integral to the program. Why would you want to join a group like that if you don’t believe in its principles?? That is like joining a church and then demanding they stop talking about God because you don’t believe in Him. Instead of trying to change US, go find and join an organization that works on teaching boys citizenship, self reliance, outdoor skills, fitness, responsibility, leadership, job skills, etc without the Duty to God aspect.

    • I’m pleased to infer that you personally support and embrace gay Scouts and gay leaders in the BSA (as you put it so well, “Why would you want to join a group like that if you don’t believe in its principles?? “) However, I would like to remind you that the BSA hasn’t always been so accepting of the LGBT community, and it took quite a few years for the BSA to realize its mistake (even when compared to the Girl Scouts who, too, were a bit slow off the mark).

      Do keep in mind that the BSA does not require faith in Him at all. Scouts are free to worship any and as many gods as they wish (just ask our Hindu Scouts). They are also free to worship trees, rocks, and the planet itself. All the BSA requires is that the Scouts have faith, and all I’m proposing is that the BSA welcome the 25% of Americans who put their faith in science (I’m citing T. Scarborough above with this statistic) as a way of encouraging more youngsters to grow into better citizens. Besides, I can’t imagine any parent objecting to their Scout sharing a tent with a budding scientist any more than they would with someone who worships Shiva, the Destroyer of the World, and as already noted Hindu Scouts are welcome.

      Our nation prides itself on the 1st Amendment (and the rest of the U.S. Constitution as currently amended), and our nation issued the BSA’s charter. It seems only reasonable, fair, and patriotic to end discrimination against a group simply due to their faith, an apparent 1st Amendment violation on our nation’s part for apparently requiring a religious affiliation among the BSA’s members.

      Since the BSA has a mechanism in place to change its policies, it is fully within our purview as members to promote change in order to improve Scouting where we see the need. Excluding 25% our our nation’s population from membership certainly appears to be a problem for us – especially at a time when we’re talking about expanding membership.

      As for me, I think excluding atheists from Scouting makes as much sense as turning away atheists at the door of my church. Personally, I’d be thrilled if the pews in my church were filled with attentive atheists waiting to hear the Word. I feel it is my BSA inspired duty to encourage BSA at the national level to end this unwarranted discrimination. After all, this is America and not Baden-Powell’s England (which now welcomes atheists and agnostics with an alternative oath).

  3. The gains to be had by BSA setting aside any of its principles remain elusive.

    However, Secretary Jewell’s suggestion that scouts design projects that increase outdoor opportunities for non-scouts may, in the long run, do just that.

  4. try reaching out to the sports community and to shooting clubs. Get involved in what a huge number of boys are doing. many boys don’t want to sit in meetings and want more outdoor time. Make it easier to et outdoors. the Secretary can help by making licenses to hunt, fish, trap, ect cheaper for scouts. They can give discounted backcountry permits to those who are registered in scouting and other outdoor use fees.

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