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Alaina Bernard: Get outside the box – and go outside!

We live in a fast-paced society, driven by technology and air conditioners. What would be the motivation for someone to get outside their box and go outside?

I have spent most of my life outdoors. I identify with nature; it is my home. But too many miss the opportunity to understand the value and relationship we have, or could have, with nature.

When I started at the University of Central Florida more than 10 years ago as a graduate student, I was drawn to the 520 acres of natural lands on our 1,415-acre campus. We have such unique grounds that not only serve as home to migrating students, but host federal- and state-protected plants and animals, and a mosaic of Florida habitats.

Since 2000, we have expanded the opportunities by creating more than five miles of hiking trails, managing the green space through a prescribed-burn program, and creating opportunities for the UCF community to get involved.

Some know of this hidden treasure on campus, but many do not. I’d like to share the significance of these natural features — but more importantly, convince you to connect to the great outdoors, wherever you may be.

The natural lands managed on campus comprise more than 320 acres of upland and wetland habitats preserved in perpetual conservation easements with the St. Johns River Water Management District. More than 200 additional acres of natural areas on campus have verbal commitments for preservation, and are being preserved and managed, such as the Arboretum and smaller isolated wetland areas.

In addition, the campus contains an extensive network of storm-water ponds. These areas, in combination with the large area occupied by wetlands on the east side of campus, constitute about 50 percent of the campus acreage.

Similarly, UCF’s urban areas host unique plants and habitats, including approximately 7,000 trees, which shade about 60 percent of the campus. In 2013, UCF students completed an evaluation of UCF’s tree campus. They estimated that carbon emissions sequestered, or removed by the canopy were approximately 5,000 tons, which is equivalent to the emissions of nearly 1,000 passenger cars annually.

The total amount of pollutants reduced by the urban forest was estimated at 36,000 pounds per year. Primary pollutants removed from the canopy are ozone and particulate matter, which contribute to respiratory illness.

This success story is also noted nationally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently finished the first assessment on the impact trees have in removing pollutants. The study found that trees within the continental United States removed more than 17 tons of air pollution in 2010, resulting in a $6.8 billion savings in human health costs.

While these statistics are meaningful, they still do not present a case for connection to the natural world. My opinion is that most of us understand the importance of nature, but still do not see how we fit into the fabric of the natural world.

Beyond the bugs, snakes and heat, there are new experiences when we connect to something bigger than ourselves. As a child growing up in rural Louisiana, my memories are of adventures in the nearby woods. We created rope swings over small creeks and built forts up in the trees. I would have never known that those experiences as a child would connect me to my present career. However, the times have changed.

In 2005, Richard Louv wrote the book, Last Child in the Woods, which highlighted nature-deficit disorder, or the mental disorder that occurs in those who spend less time outdoors, especially in children. Although controversial, his findings are similar to the biophilia hypothesis presented by ecologist Edward O. Wilson, who suggested that humans have an instinct to connect with nature.

So, why do we stay inside? I am sure you can think of at least five excuses immediately, but I invite you to find your roots and go outside.

One of my favorite quotes from Jeff Johnson, host of the exploratory documentary 180 Degrees South, is: “The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.”

I invite you to take a journey to notice the beauty of nature that surrounds you, and take the opportunity to learn something you didn’t even know existed.

My hope is that this experience will connect you to our true home, the outside.

Alaina Bernard, a UCF Forum columnist, is the University of Central Florida’s assistant director of Landscape & Natural Resources. She can be reached at Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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