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Program to educate children on forests

WASHINGTON -- Students from New York to Alaska will be exploring forests and wetlands as part of an effort by the US Forest Service to get children out of the classroom and into the woods.

The $1.5 million "Kids in the Woods" program is aimed at a growing problem among American schoolchildren: a lack of direct experience with nature that specialists say can contribute to childhood obesity, diabetes, and even attention deficit disorder.

The program also is intended to nurture future environmental scientists and other Forest Service workers -- an acute need for an agency with a graying workforce, said Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell.

"We can help address troubling declines we see in the mental and physical health of our children. At the same time, we can inspire future conservation leaders, who can perpetuate the critical role forests play in the quality of life for Americans," Kimbell said at a news conference yesterday.

The grant program includes 24 projects in 15 states, mostly in the West. More than 23,000 children are expected to participate in the program, which is supported by a host of private groups as well as state, federal, and local agencies.

The Forest Service is providing $500,000 in grants, with another $1 million provided by partners including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, New York Botanical Garden, and the Gates Foundation.

In one project, students from the Harlem Link Charter School in New York City will explore forests and wetlands in the New York region, including the botanical garden and the Meadowlands Environmental Center in New Jersey.

In the Pacific Northwest, scholarship assistance will help 800 children attend educational programs at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in Washington .

The program also will provide overnight trips for students in the Seattle area to learn more about conservation and environmental stewardship.

Author Richard Louv, whose book "Last Child in Woods" helped draw attention to the gap between children and nature, applauded the Forest Service program. Louv called nature as essential to children's health as nutrition and adequate sleep.

"If kids are not going outside in nature, who in the world is going to care about the spotted owl or any other endangered species?" he said.

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