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Logging in to get out: Interactive online videos expose students to the great outdoors

Educating youngsters about outdoor opportunities, how to get involved and even careers is part of a planned broadcast this September from the Shoshone National Forest. (Brett French / Courtesy)
Educating youngsters about outdoor opportunities, how to get involved and even careers is part of a planned broadcast this September from the Shoshone National Forest. (Brett French / Courtesy)
By Brett French The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – Students and members of the public can take a virtual field trip from the backyard to the backwoods of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this fall through a program being offered online.

Great Outdoors Live will open with a pretaped video covering the importance of public lands on Sept. 2.

“We’ll make our way across the country,” covering topics as varied as recreation on public lands to careers available to those interested in working with a public agency like the Forest Service, said Amtchat Edwards, an education specialist for the agency.

Live near Cody

That video will be a prelude to the big event, a live broadcast from the Shoshone National Forest just outside Cody, Wyoming, on Sept. 25. The live event will be interactive, allowing registered participants to text scientists and others questions.

“What we’re trying to do … is connect with as many young people as possible,” Edwards said.

The live broadcast will include topics such as: ecosystems, large and small; what public lands are and their importance; the history of public lands; connections to indigenous people; and balancing wildlife and human needs.

A similar program created by the partners highlighting North American grasslands broadcast from Colorado in 2017 won the Forest Service’s highest international award, called the Chief’s Award.

Natural resource

The field trip and live broadcast will be the latest of many from FSNatureLIVE, which for more than 10 years has created distance learning adventures covering topics as varied as bats and climate change via webcasts, webinars, and online educational resources.

“We’re getting close to being pretty good at it,” joked Ben Swecker, of the Prince William County Public Schools, one of the partners that has created the database filled with educational content, including teacher lesson plans.

Swecker called FSNatureLive the umbrella, under which everything else is housed.

“Anybody can go there and get information on any of the topics,” he said.

“It’s like a nature Google.”


The lesson plans are geared to grades 4 through 8, but the event and information are open to everyone.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that Forest Service lands are public, and that they can use it to camp and hike and bike,” said Danielle Dascalos, a Denver-based public relations liaison for the event.

That may be hard to believe for westerners who grew up recreating on public lands, but the broadcast is looking to reach a national, and possibly even international, audience where access to such vast public acreage is unavailable and unbelievable.

“It will show off Montana and Wyoming,” Dascalos said. “And it will give people the idea that, hey, it’s OK to get out there.”

Get out

The overarching goal of this and the many other broadcasts, lesson plans and virtual field trips is to get more young people outdoors.

“It’s hard to convince a 15- or 16-year-old to get outside, or to make them engage in their public lands,” Edwards said. “We need an engaged and active citizenry.”

It has also been shown that time spent outdoors encourages exercise – especially among youngsters – reduces stress, is a good source of Vitamin D and even makes people heal faster.

Although some westerners may feel like there are already too many people in the forests and streams to be recruiting newbies, the programs also stress Leave No Trace ethics and responsible use of the outdoors, Edwards said.

“We’re always trying to balance our use,” he said.

Forest based

The Shoshone National Forest was picked for the live event because it was the first national forest created in the United States. It began in 1891 as part of the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve before morphing into its current form.

At 2.4 million acres, the Shoshone covers a variety of habitat types. Bordering Yellowstone National Park the forest stretches from the Montana border south to Lander, Wyoming, while embracing portions of the lofty Absaroka, Wind River and Beartooth mountains.

The broadcast will take place at the Wapiti Ranger Station, located about 30 miles west of Cody, which was built in 1903 and is still in use today for “summer seasonal employees, pack and saddle stock and for storing equipment and supplies,” according to the forest’s website.

“It was the first ranger station constructed at federal expense in the United States,” according to the website. “In 1963, the Ranger Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark.”

Wide view

Although broadcast from the Shoshone forest, Edwards said the program will touch on all public lands. That’s a subject near to his heart as he travels the country, often using the website as a finder for green spaces. The site can be used to filter by activity, as well as by proximity to the user – from 15 to 100 miles distant.

For example, a search within 15 miles of Spokane found more than 10 places, including Riverside State Park, Drumheller Springs and the Finch Arboretum.

The website is also home to a variety of engaging activities for youngsters of different ages, everything from matching animals to their tracks to animal sounds, how to use a compass, and a guide for adults to help them take their family outdoors.

To register for updates on the program and enroll, log on to GreatOutdoorsLive and click on “register.”

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