EPNA Interview #9: Stephen Hatfield, REI’s Outdoor Programs (Portland)

This is a new series of posts in which I interview Portland personalities that are making a difference in connecting children of this region to nature. Richard Louv, the premier voice in the children and nature movement, has written several times about our natureful city. In Last Child in the Woods, he remarked on Portland’s Greenspaces program’s “call for the creation of a regional system of parks, natural areas, greenways, and trails for both wildlife and people;” PSU students’ research on possible greenroof design in downtown; and the 40-Mile Loop. In The Nature Principle, Louv commented on research in Portland on the health benefits of nature (outdoor “prescriptions”); profiled a teacher who worked as an assistant for a study of small mammals in an urban green space (Marshall Park); described Mike Houck’s work to make room for nature in a big city at a time when the consensus was that nature and wildlife were elsewhere, not within where people dwell; and how the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides access to nature via the bus system. There are other mentions of Portland, too. Patrick, Catherine, and I feel lucky to live in a city that values what the Earth gives to it. Moreover, we feel privileged to share this city with folks who strive to not only instill a love of nature into its citizens’ minds and hearts, but in providing better access to that nature.

Please contact me at darwinsbulldog@gmail.com if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.

Today I talk to Stephen Hatfield, Outdoor Programs Market Manager at REI.

Hi Stephen, welcome to Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. Would you please share with us your background – education, jobs, etc. that relate to nature in some way?

In the late 90’s I completed a MS in Environmental Education through Lesley University. At the time, the program was known as the Audubon Expedition Institute. This was a very experiential, field-based program – a learning community of 24 (21 students, 3 faculty) traveling through various regions of North America in a school bus. We explored environmental topics by meeting with folks on both sides of an issue – corporate timber managers as well as small-scale family run timber operations, for example. We slept under the stars and spent most of our time outside, delving deeply into the natural and cultural history of each region.

The program was a good fit at the time as well as a reinforcement of my own philosophy: that the natural world is our most powerful teacher, and our most critical role as educators is to facilitate direct experience for others. Since that time, I have worked for a number of organizations whose mission was somehow tied to helping folks deepen their understanding of and connection to the natural world.

After completing my degree, I worked for several years as the lead Science Faculty at the High Mountain Institute in Leadville, Colorado. This was a semester program for high school juniors, mixing rigorous academics with wilderness skills. We studied sedimentary geology in the classroom, then spent 10 days backpacking through the canyons of Southern Utah. Over a period of 5-6 years, I developed and led multi-day natural history courses for the North Cascades Institute in Washington State.

More recently, I worked as Stewardship Director for the Forest Park Conservancy here in Portland, developing educational programs and building a volunteer stewardship program. Along the way, I worked as a backcountry guide in a number of venues: backcountry ski touring in Colorado; sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands; canoeing in the North Cascades; backpacking throughout the west. Currently, I manage all of REI’s Outdoor Programs in the Portland market.

Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.

For the past year I have been managing outdoor programs in the Portland market for REI. Most of our programs are geared toward adults, but we do have family programs and a number of classes that we offer to kids. Our programs are designed to break down barriers and make it easier for folks to get outside – to learn or improve their skills in a particular activity. More often than not, parents who love spending time outside will find ways to share that passion with their kids.

I also serve on the board of directors of the Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center and the Forest Park Conservancy. Both organizations offer a variety of programs to help cultivate a greater appreciation of the natural and cultural history of Oregon’s landscape, for kids of all ages.

Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?

I grew up in Pittsford, New York – a former farm town that was in the process of morphing into a suburb of Rochester. Behind our house was a hardwood forest that seemed impossibly vast to a young lad. I spent a lot of time wandering and exploring those woods – sometimes alone, but mostly with friends and/or my brother. Further back there was a creek, and some other kids had rigged a rope swing that we all loved to play on. It was unstructured time, and we would get lost in our own world for hours until hearing our mom’s distant call: “Boys, suppertime…

Beyond that, our family spent a lot of time in the Adirondack Mountains. My grandparents had a beautiful place on one of the Fulton Chain of Lakes near Old Forge. A lot of hiking, canoeing, swimming…so many great memories – hard to pick out just one.

Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.
My wife and I have two daughters, ages 4 & 6. Spending time outside is a priority for our family, and our girls already love to travel and explore. Some of our favorite destinations include: the Oregon coast, Camp Sherman, and the North Cascades (Methow Valley and Stehekin). We spend a fair bit of time hiking locally, and have a growing number of seasonal rituals (picking chanterelles, clamming, crabbing, watching the salmon return to regional creeks, visiting farms/orchards, etc.). Our girls also love to ski, so we frequently venture up to Hood in the winter months.

Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.

Portland has great parks – and in particular, a number of truly incredible natural areas. Having these resources close to home is so important in terms of providing kids with regular exposure to nature. The more often we can get kids outside, the greater the likelihood that they develop a lifelong affinity for the natural world. Beyond that, I think Portland’s proximity to an incredibly diverse geography (mountains, rivers, desert, farms, ocean) is where it really shines. My wife and I constantly remark on what an incredible playground it is for our daughters to grow up in.

Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?

Honestly, Portland needs a world-class environmental education facility – one that is serviced by public transportation. I’m thinking of a cross between Islandwood on Bainbridge Island and the North Cascades Institute Learning Center. As I’ve already mentioned, I firmly believe that kids need regular exposure to the natural world. This would be a place to inspire kids of all ages, and to deepen our connection to the natural world. MESD Outdoor School is an incredible program that we absolutely need to keep investing in. But we should also be investing in something much closer to home – a place that can facilitate more regular contact with the natural world for all kids in the region.

Personally, I think Forest Park would be ideal. It’s such a tremendous resource for the region – very close to our densest population center, and centrally located for the metro region. And while Forest Park is already being utilized for recreation, it has such underutilized potential for education. I’d love to see that change in the next decade.

Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?

I would suggest seeking out places closer to home, and going more often. Venturing out for an hour-long hike a few times a week is better than – or perhaps a nice complement to – a longer outing on the weekend. We live in N. Portland, so two of our favorite destinations are Forest Park and Sauvie Island.

Pick a few spots close to home and take the time to really get to know them. Your kids will always find a new thicket to explore, but they will also revel in the familiarity and develop a genuine love of that place. The early seeds of stewardship being sown.

What is your favorite natural space in our city?

For a number of reasons, Forest Park is my favorite. When I first visited Portland in 1992, I stayed with a family that lived a few blocks from the park. A friend and I ventured into the park for a run and I was hooked (on Portland, and trail running too). Beyond that, I’ve always loved the woods. Forest Park is so close and shows a different personality in each season. It’s a great place to explore with my daughters. As a trail runner, I love that I can find solitude close to home and cover so much ground in a few hours. To this day, it still blows my mind that we have such a treasure in our backyard, right in the middle of the city.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Stephen!

This entry was posted in epna interviews, forest park, rei portland, stephen hatfield. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to EPNA Interview #9: Stephen Hatfield, REI’s Outdoor Programs (Portland)

  1. Kim Silva says:

    Great story! Thanks for the plug, Stephen!

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