Environment

Hear that, kids? The outdoors is calling

FILE--10-year-old Hannah Richter, of "Young Friends of the Everglades," takes a picture of a Cormorant along the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades National Park.
FILE--10-year-old Hannah Richter, of "Young Friends of the Everglades," takes a picture of a Cormorant along the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades National Park. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

With Biscayne Bay at her back, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell unveiled a national effort Friday to bridge the growing gap between the great outdoors and inner city kids.

“We know we need to get more kids engaged in the outdoors,” Jewell said. “It feeds their soul.”

Jewell, the former CEO of outdoor gear retailer REI appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, has taken a special interest in reconnecting kids, particularly urban youth, with public lands. Friday’s announcement — a partnership with the YMCA backed with a $5 million from American Express — will help hire staff in 50 cities, including Miami, to fulfill a mission of “play, learn, serve and work.”

“Miami is blessed with beautiful weather [but also] flat topography. It is really on the front lines of climate change and rising sea levels,” she said of Miami’s selection for a pilot program. “It’s important that the people of South Florida understand that, especially the young people.”

Joined by U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado and Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos, Jewell said Miami was chosen because it has a strong YMCA, abundant parks and public lands and lots of needy kids. Starting Saturday, YMCAs across South Florida will begin signing kids up for a 12-week summer camp program that includes snorkeling and other park activities, said Tim Staley, YMCA vice president.

The program stems from marching orders issued by Obama to do more to connect urban kids with national parks, which draw largely white, non-Hispanic visitors, and whose work force is more than 80 percent white.

“The public perception that even some black people shared is, ‘Oh, we don’t do that,’” said Audrey Peterman, a board member for the National Parks Conservation Association, who worked with Jewell on a committee to find ways to attract diverse visitors.

Jewell’s visit coincides with increasing acrimony in Florida over environmental issues after reports surfaced this week that Gov. Rick Scott ordered staff not to use the term climate change. Environmentalists are also waging in a bitter war with lawmakers over the purchase of U.S. Sugar land they say voters endorsed when they approved a constitutional measure to buy such land.

Friday, Jewell said Scott had been a “good partner” in efforts to restore the Everglades, citing the state’s efforts to bridge the Tamiami Trail to move water south.

“The state has been a critical player,” she said. “So I’m going to look at the positive and recognize we have a partner in Gov. Scott that we really need to get this important work done.”

On the contentious land deal, Jewell urged the state to follow through.

“It is really important that we work on those areas south of the Everglades to reclaim them from agricultural status,” she said. “I hope that people working on that can continue to stay at the table and get it across the finish line. It is really important.”

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