Most humans today live in a society plagued by plant blindness, or the cognitive "inability to see or notice the plants in one's own environment," according to the Native Plant Conservation Campaign. Yes, plant blindness is a real thing.
And it's a real problem too, says Sara Digby, an educator at the Institute for Applied Ecology's free summer youth program, Forest Bound, which gets New Mexico teens out into national forests to learn about local plant life. Curing plant blindness is one of the program's goals.
When people are unable to recognize, identify and ultimately value plants in our natural surroundings, they are less likely to protect them or learn about them. For example, though 57% of endangered species in the US are plants, they only receive 4% of federal endangered species funding. And while plants are the most important factor in maintaining healthy ecosystems and provide for breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and even technology, the number of undergraduate degrees in botany is rapidly declining, according to a study by the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Botanic Gardens Conservation International.
Perhaps a solution lies in educating young people that plants are important.
Naseem Dhaouadi, a 15 year-old from Albuquerque who participated in Forest Bound last summer, tells SFR that he has always loved being outdoors and physics is one of his favorite subjects in school. "But honestly, I never really thought about plants," he says. "Forest Bound provoked deeper thought when I was sitting somewhere looking at a plant or walking. I'm definitely more interested in biology now." His favorite activity was helping build a rainwater garden.
The program teaches teens aged 13 to 18 all about the amazing properties of local plant life as part of a broad curriculum. "We want kids to get their hands in the dirt, to have a direct experience of their own connection to the Earth and the land, and also of the relationship of plants to everything else," Digby says.
The week-long program includes hiking trips into the national forest for education on plant identification and aspects of ecology such as the role of insects and pollinators.
Each day, students get to learn about local ecosystems through a different activity. An ethnobotany segment gets them familiar with medicinal and edible properties of native plants through a cooking class where they make things like piñon pancakes and healing salves. Students study seed collection through a field trip where they learn to gather, clean and preserve seeds from wild plants from areas of the forest where collection is permitted.
"We try to plan activities where kids not only learn about nature, but get to make a real contribution to the field," says Digby. "Some of the seeds they collect will be cultivated for restoration purposes. Another example is our hands-on restoration day in the Santa Fe Watershed. Students help with invasive plant removal and native plantings."
Students also get to know careers that are part of taking care of the natural world.
"What we have been doing for the last couple of years with Forest Bound is having some of the people from all different fields involved in stewardship to expose those students to some of the things they could potentially do if it interests them," says Daryl Ratajczak, a wildlife biologist with the Santa Fe National Forest who teaches students in Forest Bound about large carnivores such as bears and mountain lions.
Ratajczak says there are many more career opportunities than most students are aware of. For instance, students who are interested in working with wildlife are frequently only aware of the role of park and forest rangers, when in fact biologists, geologists, ecologists, botanists and water experts are all just as likely to engage directly with wildlife out in the field, and are needed. The agency illustrates this by taking students to visit projects where many different kinds of professionals are involved, such as creating artificial beaver dams to encourage more beaver activity and restore wetlands in the Jemez Mountains.
"I personally think there is no better career," says Ratajczak, "because it's just so rewarding, and the fact that you get to go out into the forest and that you get paid to do it is one of the most amazing things in my life."
The Forest Bound program conducts four sessions over the course of the year, one of which is with participants of Santa Fe's YouthWorks nonprofit. Both the Santa Fe National Forest session, which runs from June 17-21, and the Cibola National Forest session, July 8-12, are currently open for registration. Visit appliedeco.org for more information or to apply.