Where exactly does an urban youngster go to learn how to shoot, hunt and fish? Where does he even go to hike?
Those are the questions officials at the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department (GFP) struggled with more than a decade ago, as they saw Sioux Falls getting more and more urbanized. While South Dakota is a premier destination for various types of hunting and fishing, it was becoming evident that children and even many adults in the cities were not being exposed to the outdoors.
The answer they came up with is The Outdoor Campus, an educational facility in the heart of Sioux Falls funded by GFP and staffed with both paid and volunteer personnel. They teach a full slate of outdoor skills—hunting, gun safety, fishing, canoeing, outdoor cooking and more.
They are not just giving the students the skills and exposure they need to enjoy the outdoors, they are generating more people who buy hunting and fishing licenses. Virtually all state game and fish departments in the country are struggling with the same problems of getting kids outdoors, and many state efforts are underway to give kids more exposure to hunting, fishing and outdoor skills. We thought South Dakota’s operation was a good model to take a look at, so we asked Thea Ryan, director of The Outdoor Campus, to tell us how it came to be.
NRAhuntersrights: What was involved in actually getting The Outdoor Campus off the ground? Whose idea was it? Who did the planning, got the property acquisition underway, designed the buildings?
Ryan: The idea originated with a Game, Fish and Parks cabinet secretary whose enthusiasm for outdoor skills education was contagious. A group of Pierre and Sioux Falls, S.D., folks got together to start the process rolling. First, they created a partnership with the City of Sioux Falls. The city was looking for a way to partner with an outside group to help create a science-themed park in one of their newer city parks--Sertoma Park. The building was designed by Sioux Falls architectural firm Koch, Hazard, Baltzer and was completed for opening in June 1997.
NRAhuntersrights: What, if any institutional barriers were faced?
Ryan: Creating a new idea in the midst of several government agencies is never easy, but GFP and the city forged ahead with their plan to create the first outdoor skills learning center in the U.S.
NRAhuntersrights: How much funding was needed and where did it come from?
Ryan: The building was a $3.2 million project in 1997. Part of the money came from a fundraising campaign. The land was contributed and still is maintained by the City of Sioux Falls and the remainder of building costs was paid for with license dollars from South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
NRAhuntersrights: How long did it take from funding approval to actually opening the school?
Ryan: We had a couple glitches along the way. Our governor died in a plane crash in 1993 after having approved the project. That put us on hold for a while. Our next governor eventually approved us to move forward again, but then he was defeated in the election. Our next governor finally approved the project in 1996, at least three years after it was formally begun.
NRAhuntersrights: Can you describe the physical facilities and property?
Ryan: The Outdoor Campus lies in 100-acre Sertoma Park. The park itself has two miles of walking trails that take visitors through tallgrass prairie, riparian areas, eastern South Dakota woodlands, and a large garden planted specifically for native butterflies. Discovery pond is only two acres in size, but hosts many fishing, fly fishing, ice fishing, kayaking and canoeing classes throughout the year. The building has two classrooms, one theatre, a museum with hands-on fun for kids, a wildlife viewing area, and a large gallery space for additional programming or events.
NRAhuntersrights: Can you tell us all the courses currently taught?
Ryan: We teach many different hunting classes throughout the year. Our hunting classes start with basic knowledge about wildlife management, including classes about game
animals and habitat. All our classes are age-appropriate. The school session programs meet many of the state education standards, including science, math, social studies and physical education. Kids can take BB gun, target shooting and air rifle classes on site. We also offer a program, Step Outside, in a 20-county area during the summer months that features actual range shooting. Some of our classes focus on deer, turkey or waterfowl hunting specifically. These classes typically include decoy placement, calling, cleaning and cooking, if appropriate to the topic. We also do archery, fishing, outdoor cooking, game cooking, GPS, orienteering, photography, hiking, birding and many other outdoor skills classes.
NRAhuntersrights: Where do you get your instructors? How many hours a week might they work?
Ryan: Our instructors are staff members for the most part. They work 40-hour weeks as educators. We do have some volunteer instructors as well.
NRAhuntersrights: How many total students came to the school last year? Has the number generally gone up since you opened?
Ryan: Last year we had over 100,000 visitors to The Outdoor Campus. Last year around 21,000 people attended programs here.
NRAhuntersrights: Are there adult students as well as children?
Ryan: Yes. We call our audience "pre-K to gray."
NRAhuntersrights: How have public schools reacted to The Outdoor Campus? Do groups such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts come to the school?
Ryan: Schools in our region send thousands of kids to The Outdoor Campus for programs. They know we will help them meet the education standards, so they don’t have to work hard on convincing their principals or administration that a class at The Outdoor Campus is a good idea. We also have thousands of groups that attend our programs, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, church groups, camps, reunions, and other organized groups.
NRAhuntersrights: What advice would you give another state fish and game agency that wanted to open a similar school?
Ryan: Come visit us! We opened a second facility on the west side of our state a year ago because of the successes we have here in Sioux Falls. We have a great model for other states that want to have partnerships with other government organizations, as well.
NRAhuntersrights: Is there a full-time staff that runs The Outdoor Campus?
Ryan: We have five full-time staff: a director, secretary, volunteer coordinator, community and group program coordinator, and a naturalist.
We also have a part-time night and weekend manager and two contract teachers from the Sioux Falls School District to teach our classes and create curriculum. We pay the salary of two 10-month contract teachers. There are also seasonal paid internships available throughout the year.
NRAhuntersrights: Are the students charged a fee?
Ryan: No. The only time a fee may be charged is if supplies for the class are more than our budget would allow. For example, we have a rod building class where the participants purchase their own rod components. The class is free, and we teach them how to put it all together. Our programs are all funded by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses in South Dakota.
NRAhuntersrights: What is your annual operating budget?
Ryan: The operating budget is approximately $700,000 annually.
NRAhuntersrights: What evidence do you have that kids who go to The Outdoor Campus actually buy a hunting or fishing license?
Ryan: In a study done by Dr. Chris McCart in 2008 specifically on our fishing programs, she discovered, “Results also demonstrated an association between Outdoor Campus fishing program participation and an increase in fishing license sales.”
NRAhuntersrights: What do you think the ultimate value of the school is?
Ryan: Ultimately, we’re working to preserve South Dakota’s outdoor heritage. We don’t want kids to experience Nature Deficit Disorder as described in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods.
Beyond that, people are always concerned about how sportsmen’s dollars are spent. We work hard to create a program that creates new sportsmen and women--ethical, educated and safe. After the last 16 years of work, people seem satisfied that we are helping preserve our outdoor heritage and spending the sportsmen’s dollars wisely.
Learn more about The Outdoor Campus at: