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Our favorite stories about public lands and opportunities for you to get involved in protecting your outdoor experiences.


Civic Recreation and the Future of the Conservation Movement

Guest Contributor

Photo credit: Bob Wick, via BLM Flickr

Photo credit: Bob Wick, via BLM Flickr

Guest post by Rebecca Schild, PhD. Rebecca Schild completed her PhD in Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, researching how the outdoor recreation community is playing a role in the environmental movement of the 21st Century. She is currently the Co-Director of a traveling semester program for the High Mountain Institute that combines outdoor adventure and environmental stewardship. As a Colorado native, she is an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends most of her free time climbing with her husband or trail running and backcountry skiing in the amazing back yard of Leadville. In the spring of 2015, she surveyed Outdoor Alliance's member organizations about civic recreation.

The conservation movement is at a crossroads. Today, more people are disconnected from nature, sitting in cubicles and living in busy cities. Membership in traditional conservation organizations is aging, and defensive strategies are only so effective. We need to rethink how we create new conservation advocates and what strategies will achieve results. With the popularity of outdoor recreation continually rising, outdoor recreationists are an important constituency for the conservation movement today. Civic recreation – what I describe as voluntary recreation organizations aimed at preserving, creating, and restoring recreational resources – indicate that outdoor recreation may be the future of conservation. In a study of both local organizations and individuals within the Outdoor Alliance community, I sought to understand how outdoor recreation can create strong conservation advocates and why individuals are motivated to get involved. The highlights of my findings are below:

Why do people volunteer for an outdoor recreation advocacy group? I looked at volunteers as a highly-active group among members of these membership organizations.

  • What motivates people to volunteer? Volunteers were most motivated by a desire to give back to the community, express their environmental values, and ensure recreational resources would be available for future generations. People also talked at length about the rewards of building something, making a tangible impact, and wanting a sense of community and a cause bigger than themselves.
  • Are there differences between user groups? Among Outdoor Alliance member groups, rock climbers were the most motivated by environmental values, community, and a feeling of obligation. Trail users were more motivated by environmental values than mountain bikers, skiers and boaters; whereas mountain bikers were more motivated by community than trail users, skiers and boaters.
  • Why do volunteers stay involved? While the desire to give back and express environmental values were the highest initial motivators, they did not predict the degree of volunteer engagement. Instead, the more a person felt a sense of belonging to the organization, the higher their level of volunteer engagement. By contrast, the more an individual felt obligated to volunteer, the less engaged they were. This result suggests that feelings of guilt are not very effective at motivating volunteers.

Does outdoor recreation and volunteering lead to more conservation values/actions?

Intuitively, it would make sense that people who spend time outdoors recreating would be motivated to do so because of conservation values or that they would develop conservation values as a result. I found a positive relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation values and behaviors.

  • Outdoor recreation positively predicts pro-environmental behaviors, such as recycling, composting, carpooling, and volunteering. This effect is amplified if an individual forms a deeper connection to nature through their recreational activity. Once an individual begins to volunteer, this effect is further strengthened.
  • Members felt a closer connection to nature and place and an enhanced feeling of empowerment from volunteering or being involved in a member organization. They described a strengthened community of trust and confidence in the management of outdoor landscapes. People also noted they had gotten involved in other civic activities and forms of volunteering in their community. These findings reveal the virtuous cycle that is created through civic recreation. Recreation membership organizations can help to build advocates for other environmental causes.

Outdoor recreation is one way for people to reconnect with nature, develop conservation values, and relate to their environment in meaningful ways. Furthermore, civic recreation organizations create communities that individuals strongly identify with and feel inspired to pursue shared goals.