Outdoors with Tom VeneskyPenn State sends wrong message by labeling outdoors as ‘too risky’

By Tom Venesky - [email protected]
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I hope the view held by some officials at Penn State University doesn’t reflect society’s mindset in general when it comes to the outdoors.

And I worry that a recent decision by the university could be an indicator of where we’re headed when it comes to how we perceive nature.

But one thing is certain: The decision by Penn State to halt nature excursions by the student-run Outing Club is a clear example of the growing disconnect between society and the natural world.

The Penn State Outing Club was founded in 1920 and linked students with outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and canoeing.

This month, the university said the club will no longer be allowed to organize such trips because they are too risky. These trips are to places like the Rothrock State Forest and Laurel Ridge State Park — which are both have plenty to offer as “natural classrooms” for college students.

Yet while the university has deemed such trips into the wilderness as too dangerous for its students, it has no problem offering internships abroad to locales such as Russia, China and South Korea.

Communist China is safer than the Rothrock State Forest in Centre County?

Anyhow, Penn State reached its decision after conducting a risk assessment of all school-affiliated clubs. The Outing Club, it determined, had activities rated as “high risk” because it took students to remote areas with limited cell service, far from any emergency services.

In this day and age, if there are college students willing to go to places where they might not be able to use their phones that is something that should be encouraged. To state that a location with poor cell service is “high risk” only further handcuffs today’s youth to their smartphones and increases the disconnect between the younger generation and our natural world.

And that’s what troubles me most about the university’s decision.

What kind of message is being sent if we are telling young people that the wilderness is too risky of a place to venture? Should we really be touting “poor cell service” as a reason not to explore nature?

Shouldn’t we, as a society, just toughen up and not limit our lives to where our cell phones get the best reception?

The university did mention alcohol use as another concern for cutting the activities of the Outing club and two other groups, but didn’t list any specific incidents. But officials for the clubs said in news stories last week that they have zero-tolerance policies in place for alcohol and didn’t have any incidents during their outings.

Of course, there are liability issues at play as well. Sure, there is a risk of getting injured while walking or recreating in the outdoors, and I’m sure that was part of the basis why the Outing Club and Nittany Grotto Caving Club and Nittany Divers SCUBA Club were all directed to end the trips they offer.

Still, while the university focused on outdoor-oriented clubs in an effort to protect itself against possible litigation, that didn’t lead to further restrictions on clubs that offer boxing, judo, ice hockey or even dodgeball.

The outdoors shouldn’t be a place that is feared, no matter how remote or how poor the cell service is. In fact, those aspects should be incentives to venture into the wilderness and explore the natural world.

And if a group of young people want to spend their free time enjoying nature, that’s something that an educational institution should encourage. Restricting those activities and forcing young people to look elsewhere to spend their time could pose a higher risk than letting them hike and camp.

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By Tom Venesky

[email protected]

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky

Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky