Desert Companion

Environment: Class is Out(side)


Wolf Coyote
Illustration by Kristine Collantes

Environmental stewardship programs aim to curb people’s bad outdoors behavior. Do they work?

In January, local writer Alan Snel logged onto Facebook to post a photo from his morning bike ride to Red Rock Canyon. He added a note about finding some trash — coffee and drink cups — along the scenic route and picking them up. A couple of tourists stopped to help him, he said, and all shared their dismay over the litter they’d seen. “Red Rock is an amazing natural resource, and we’re lucky to have this so close to a metro area of 2 million-plus people,” Snel wrote. “It’s simple stuff. Don’t trash Red Rock.”

The post elicited expressions of shock (“It disgusts me,” “absolutely unbelievable”) and descriptions of similar experiences with finding trash in other popular areas.

This kind of thread is not uncommon among outdoor recreationists, who use social media to call out transgressions ranging from playing loud music on hikes to leaving toilet paper (or worse) in the open. They, in turn, have been taken to task for lording their privilege over people who may not have the luxury of spending much time in nature and, therefore, be unaware of the behavior required to preserve its beauty and vitality.

At the heart of this back-and-forth is a question that’s becoming more urgent as the number of people visiting places like Red Rock and Mount Charleston steadily climbs: Who’s teaching outdoor ethics? And does their approach work?

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A healthy exchange

The original inhabitants of the Mojave Desert relied on oral tradition to teach respect for the environment, says Ashly Marie Osborne, tribal council secretary for the Moapa Band of Paiutes. Her mother was raised on the tribe’s reservation northeast of Las Vegas and, after some time away, moved back to raise Osborne there when the girl was 3 years old.

“That was my first primary education,” Osborne says, “my grandfather and grandmother telling me about life through folklore ... We have a connection with spirit, animals, and nature. We respect all of those within our belief system.”

To illustrate her tribe’s oral tradition, Osborne recalls the story of the wolf and the coyote, taught to her as a young girl:


They’re brothers. My grandfather explained that they both live within us and you can choose which one you want to be. The coyote takes shortcuts, takes advantage of others, is lazy, while the wolf works hard and does what’s right. So, my grandfather would ask me, “Who are you going to be today, wolf or coyote?” And I’d laugh and be like, “The wolf, grandpa.” That helped me understand that, as humans, we’re not perfect. … But we have a choice when it comes to which way we want to be. You understand the balance and learn how to make life’s decisions. We use that to keep people on the right path. Coyote runs wherever he wants. You might need to be reminded to get back on the path. Wolf is mercy, merit, honesty, trust — core values that everybody shares.


Among these core values is a view of the Earth as creator, Osborne says. Just as an obedient child does what his mother asks, because he knows that, in turn, his mother takes care of him, so should we watch for opportunities to give back to the natural world.

Sakey Kids

Children in the City of Las Vegas Safekey program at Rose Warren Elementary School participate in an interactive presentation by Get Outdoors Nevada. Photography by Brent Holmes; Location courtesy City of Las Vegas Safekey

“In our culture, we’re taught to take care of children and teach them, and take care of elders and learn from them, and take care of the environment, the food and water that nourish us and give us life,” Osborne says. “Mother does things for you, and you do things for her. It’s a healthy exchange.”

Southern Paiutes widely share this view of an interdependent relationship with the Earth. But Osborne and others are concerned about the effects that forced assimilation and cultural oppression have had on the oral tradition keeping Paiute beliefs and practices alive.

Responding to this concern, the Moapa Paiutes recently received a childcare development fund, which they’ve used to establish service-program grants for federally recognized Indians, “from all over, not just here,” Osborne says.

  “Using those funds, we’re building a daycare center on the reservation commingled with an elder center, so children and elders would interact and be part of the culture exchange,” she says. “So, even in a household with family members who missed out on that oral tradition, or they work a lot and are too busy to spend time with their kids, they can drop their children off there, and they’ll be able to connect with an elder and have that exchange.”

 She’s hoping that the center will be completed by summer.

A good start

“Don’t touch!” shouts a group of around 100 first- and second-graders, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the Walter E. Jacobson multipurpose room. They’re answering a question — What should you do if you see a desert tortoise? — asked by Aaron Leifheit, Get Outdoors Nevada’s education program director. Assisted by local TV weather celebrity Nathan Tannenbaum and two staff members from Clark County’s Desert Conservation Program, one in a Mojave Max costume, Leifheit is leading an interactive presentation on the desert tortoise.

The team is skilled at keeping a roomful of squirming 6-year-olds’ attention, an ability acquired by making more than a dozen of these presentations per year. They ask questions to review main points, giving prizes for correct answers; pick volunteers to place different parts of a tortoise costume on their teacher (thus naming the tortoise body part); and, when the squirming and whispering start to build, count down to silence. The knowledge the kids acquire is rudimentary, but they seem to get it, and their teachers will go over it again later in class. The question is: Are they actually learning anything?“It’s totally possible to measure,” Leifheit says, “but it’s kind of hard, and that’s why we’ve switched to having specific outcomes for all of our programs. If you have an outcome, then you can measure it.”

City of Las Vegas SafekeyChildren in the City of Las Vegas Safekey program at Rose Warren Elementary School participate in an interactive presentation by Get Outdoors Nevada. Photography by Brent Holmes; Location courtesy City of Las Vegas Safekey

One method the group uses is to survey teachers, asking them to rate statements such as, “I feel comfortable teaching about the desert tortoise in my classroom,” or “My students enjoyed this activity.” Another way is by getting the students themselves to complete an activity, such as drawing a desert tortoise’s habitat, both before and after the presentation. Those evaluating the drawings look for specific elements, say, cacti or sagebrush, and compare the percentages of drawings that contain those elements pre- and post-presentation.

“We like to do it that way, because it’s an accurate representation of what they know,” Leifheit says. 

Results from such surveys indicate that Get Outdoors Nevada’s programs have a positive effect, at least in the short term. For instance, knowledge of local drinking water’s sources increased from 83 percent to 95 percent among participants in 2015’s YMCA Nature Summer Camp. And 91 percent of teachers said they learned something new, and believed their students did as well, from the 2018 Meet Your Mojave microgrant program, which provides transportation grants for school visits to public lands.

Beyond these programs, Get Outdoors Nevada has several others, the most intensive of which may be its Next Generation Science Standards Program. For this, Get Outdoors Nevada educators teach an accredited curriculum focused on specific outdoors topics. The lessons culminate in field trips, where students can see subject matter first-hand.

“If you think about the way science used to be taught,” Leifheit says, “it was, ‘Here are some words; here’s a test on them.’ We’re saying, ‘No, science is about conducting investigations, making models.’”

Underlying all the programs is a belief implied in the approach of the Moapa Paiutes: The best way to get adults who are responsible in nature is to make responsible nature-lovers out of children.

“We tell kids, ‘You may be small. You may not have your own bank account or car, but there are a lot of things you can do to make the world a better place,’” Leifheit says. “‘Don’t litter. Stay on the trail so you don’t step on plants. Don’t take animals out of their natural habitat.’ We’re trying to instill respect for the environment in the culture of the region.”

Get Outdoors Nevada’s six full-time educators conducted 606 programs in 2019, reaching a little over 17,000 kids. On one hand, Leifheit says, that’s a huge accomplishment. “On the other, that’s only a small portion of the population of Las Vegas.”

In order for it to really work, adults have to step up and do their part, too.

Tracing it Back

Most grown-up outdoor recreation enthusiasts have heard of REI. This outdoor retail giant has been driving the community engagement bandwagon in recent years, offering an urban interpretation of the hunting classes and guided treks that backcountry outfitters have done for decades. Las Vegas’ two REI locations have event space, where staff teach customers, including members (it’s a co-op), how to do things like fix flats, tie climbing ropes, and use a map and compass in the wilderness. This isn’t ethics education, per se, but it does promote stewardship, says Daniel Grillo, the company’s head of program development.

“Empowering people to recreate in spaces changes how they value them,” Grillo says. “It’s like the difference between something you see in a museum and something you own. Both are valuable, but one feels personal.”

In other words, REI guides and educators focus on getting folks outdoors, and once they’re there, they incorporate practices that minimize their impact. The company likes beginners. It’s easier, Grillo says, to create good habits than to change bad ones. And REI leans heavily on regional nonprofits that do on-the-ground preservation and restoration, such as, locally, Friends of Sloan Canyon and the Southern Nevada Climbing Coalition.

But REI doesn’t actually develop the outdoor ethics training methodology it uses or track its effectiveness. For that, it turns to organizations such as outdoor leadership school NOLS and the granddaddy of all recreation rule-makers, Leave No Trace.

Ben Lawhon, the education director of Leave No Trace organization, would dislike the characterization of its principles as rules. Being didactic, he says, is one of the approaches that doesn’t work, along with shaming, moralizing, inconsistency, and creating in-groups and out-groups.

“We’re not a regulatory entity,” he says. “It’s got to be fun. We have to be viewed as the smart way to enjoy the outdoors. Often, it’s not only the right thing to do, but also, it’s the easiest.”

Lawhon and his colleagues at the Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit have gleaned this wisdom from 25 years of research. The organization’s roots go back to the 1980s, when programs with names like Wilderness Manners began to pop up. The Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and Army Corps of Engineers “learned over time that they needed to coalesce behind one concept,” Lawhon says. “They called it Leave No Trace. We, as an organization, started in 1994, resulting from a large outdoor recreation summit hosted by them and numerous corporations from the outdoor industry.”

Since then, the group estimates, 15.5 million people — including 235,000 children last year — have heard its message, which it disseminates through a multitude of programs, from a Girl Scouts curriculum to a workplace Power Point talk that can be downloaded for free on its website. That message consists of seven, continually evolving principles: plan ahead and prepare; travel and camp on durable surfaces; dispose of waste properly; leave what you find; minimize campfire impacts; respect wildlife; and be considerate of other visitors.

Like Leifheit, Lawhon is proud of his work, but he worries that it’s a drop in the bucket.

“There are millions and millions of people going to these spaces, and there are more of them all the time. So, for us the goal post is always moving,” he says. “Research indicates that 9 out of 10 people who spend time in the outdoors are either un- or under-informed about minimizing the impacts of their activities on natural resources.”

Here’s a specific example, from Leave No Trace’s own research. A 2017 study of around 10,000 people at three national parks found that more than a quarter of them were not disposing of their waste properly.  (The organization has also found that 100 million pounds of waste are generated each year in national parks. So, you do the math.)

Still, there are some positive results too, such as people’s acknowledgment that the principles are important to practice and that they’d do the right thing if it were made easy for them by having the proper infrastructure. And Lawhon says the organization has expanded its approach to reach a broader audience.

“We’ve moved far beyond the wilderness boundary, and the vast majority people we educate now are in what we call front-country, places you can visit by car, day users,” he says. “As that has happened, we’ve shifted the way we teach them, from technical education to simpler, more user-friendly messages.”

After all, whether you jog at Lone Mountain, ride your dirt bike in Logandale, fish at Sunset Park, or just lie on your back and watch the clouds go by, “you’re an outdoors person,” Lawhon says.  “And what you do isn’t done in a vacuum. It affects the entire ecosystem.”

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