Who uses the Sutton Wilderness?
Based on our observations over 25 years, most visitors to the Sutton Wilderness do not have any particular interest in nature. Most visitors are walking dogs, walking for exercise, or jogging. A few others are there to fish. And a very, very few actually are clearly interested in spotting birds or exploring nature. These individuals might have binoculars (for birds) or a field guide to plants of Oklahoma. In our experience, less than one person in 100, or perhaps one in 500, has either of these items with them when they are in the Sutton Wilderness. Many people have cameras (though only a small minority), and most of these individuals are using the wilderness for a photo shoot of people, not nature (if you don’t believe this Google “Sutton Wilderness” and look at the images that come up. To people interested in nature, as the authors of this website are, these are the hard realities. However, we also recognize that visiting the Sutton Wilderness is more nature-oriented than visiting a mall, or going to watch a movie.
Recognizing that most readers of this webpage may have stumbled upon it by Googling or by seeing first some other related link, we assume that we need to introduce the reader to nature concepts, and to justify why nature education is important.
The term “nature deficit disorder” was coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last child in the woods” about today’s youth that spends increasingly less time amongst nature. (See his website for positive steps to take.) In earlier times, when cities were smaller and natural landscapes were closer to many people, it was more common to spend time closer to “nature”. Today, with most people living in cities it is usually a drive to see natural landscapes. In Norman, though there are “naturalistic” landscapes close to the city, nearly all of this is private property and trespassing is not allowed. The Canadian River likewise is either private property (to the middle of the river in Oklahoma) or otherwise not accessible.
The City of Norman has under its supervision some 55 neighborhood and community parks and many other facilities. Of these, only a small percentage have natural areas within their park boundaries. Of these, only the Sutton Wilderness has a kiosk describing the natural aspects of the park. Thus, for someone living within the city of Norman, and not living on acreage in the countryside, there are very few places to wander and explore a natural landscape.
How to get educated about nature? Why even bother?
Should the Sutton Wilderness be a nature-focused park? Or should it be oriented to dog-walking and jogging, since most users currently fall into these categories? Banning dogs and joggers would certainly be very unpopular, even if it were in the interest of wildlife in the Wilderness. Why even attempt to orient Norman’s citizenry towards appreciating nature? These are important questions that need to be asked, especially since the Sutton Wilderness land will ultimately have to be bought from the State of Oklahoma, the current owner, for some millions of dollars. This would certainly be an expensive dog and jogging park.
Either viewpoint above can be justified. The current wilderness provides a pleasant place for walking (with or without dogs) and also for jogging. There is no traffic to worry about, no crossing of streets and other distractions normal in an urban setting. Since there are so many people in these two categories, compared with individuals primarily interested in “nature-observations”, it seems clear that the Sutton Wilderness should be focused on these users.
Or should it?
The counter-argument, that the Sutton Wilderness should be focused on nature activities, might go something like this. There are many (more than 50) parks around Norman to walk your dog, and innumerable streets as well. And a dedicated city dog park exists in Griffin Park (however, this park is not good for a walk). Similarly, joggers can jog almost anywhere, though crossing streets, even in quite residential neighborhoods, can be problematic. (Curiously, there seems to be no public jogging track available to Normanites.) However, there is essentially no place in Norman where people can go to be immersed in a natural environment – or learn about the local flora and fauna. There needs to be one such place. Such a view holds that despite an initial drop in visitation that would certainly result from discouraging dogs and jogging in the Sutton Wilderness, there would be an eventual recovery of interest once the new rules were understood and appreciated. This coupled with new facilities to educate people about the natural world, would lead to a new increase in visitation, but with a focus on nature observation.
Why should we encourage a better knowledge of our environment and ecology?
An appreciation of diversity of life is needed to appreciate more abstract topics such as biodiversity, ecology, and to understand how humanity is affecting the natural world around us. As citizens we are being asked to provide our input on these topics today. For example, public input has recently been solicited on whether we should reduce the size of new national monuments created during the past 20 years. Should the US leave the Paris Global climate accord? Should the US encourage global population limits and support family planning in other countries? All of these issues tie into our natural environment and global ecology.
Many people first develop an interest in nature via exposure to a natural area. This, coupled with a field guide, allows the person to start identifying what they are seeing. How does someone – at any age develop an interest in nature? Books could be, and have been, written about this subject so we won’t repeat this material here. But just being present in a natural setting – though a key component of nature learning, isn’t enough. You need to know what you are seeing, and then have the inclination to ask questions (and get answers) about what you are seeing.