by Whit Gibbons

August 18, 2003

Kurt Buhlmann, turtle specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Conservation International, spends much of his time traveling abroad, working with governments and local communities, helping developing countries conserve nature. He feels that his current appreciation and enthusiasm for nature study, and his incentive to earn a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Georgia, was in part a product of his early years as a camp naturalist, where he took kids on hikes in the woods and investigated life in ponds and meadows.

Recently, he reprised his role as a camp naturalist and discovered that although young people may not know much about the natural world, they are eager to learn.

"Nature conservation lies with each succeeding generation, and I am concerned that today's young people spend too little time outdoors--too many computer games, television, and urbanized neighborhoods with fewer opportunities for kids to roam through field and stream. To see if kids could still be interested in nature study, I spent a week of vacation time as a volunteer at a children's summer camp in New Jersey where I had worked as camp naturalist as a teenager.

"Many people think New Jersey's nickname, `the Garden State,' is a misnomer. But parts of the state definitely live up to the name. The 400-acre camp I visited is located in a remote corner of the state and encompasses some of the state's most natural and serene habitats, where a mature hardwood forest surrounds a glacier-carved lake.

"I had a blast. Kids are hungry to learn about nature. I worked with age groups from third grade up to seniors in high school. We went on forest hikes to look for little hidden jewels, such as multiple species of colorful salamanders, under rocks and logs. Finding this hidden biodiversity was like going on an Easter egg hunt. Once one or two kids found the first salamander, the challenge for me became getting them back out of the woods in time for their next activity.

"I took the youngest children to a little farm pond and had them sneak up quietly to the pond edge so they could see the frogs and turtles before they hid from our view. I gave each child a small dip net and stood back while they scooped into the water. Squeals of excitement were heard as tadpoles, salamanders, and aquatic insects, including big dragonfly larvae, were brought to me to examine. These kids learned that the tiny pond was home to countless fascinating animals that they had not seen firsthand before. With wet and muddy sneakers, we left the pond only reluctantly.

"I took the junior high campers onto the glacial lake in rowboats. We talked about the formation of the lake, identified the plants such as cattails and water lilies, and talked about the fish species that lived there. We noted that the water clarity of the lake was attributable to the lack of erosion and the undisturbed forest around the lake. When I grabbed a basking turtle off a log by hand, the group was wide-eyed. Most every kid immediately wanted to hold or touch the turtle, those that did not, soon came around. The 'lake ecology and turtle safari' was a great success.

"Finally, I took the older campers on 'night hikes.' We listened for and identified sounds of the night, from owls, to frogs, to cicadas. We set up a black light to attract dozens of species of moths, colorful creatures that few kids knew existed. We lay out on the docks at the lake in the dark, aimed our flashlights into the water, and watched mosquito larvae wiggle to the surface, split their skins, and emerge, just as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Imagine developing an appreciation for nature by being impressed with the pesky mosquito!

"I came home tired but rejuvenated, although I did find one of my concerns to be valid-kids today have less nature experience than children of twenty years ago. Humans need to be exposed to nature at a young age. Fortunately, I found the kids incredibly hungry for it."

Kurt says he has already decided to go back to camp next summer and do it again.

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