Last summer, when my cousin was married in Colorado, my extended family and I shared a condo in the mountains for the wedding week. Even though there were no listed instructions for recycling, I was resolute that we sort our trash and I spent more than a few minutes searching the local municipal website to learn where recyclable materials were collected. Because my family loves me – and the planet Earth – they went along with my insistence with nary an eye-roll. We found the recycle center on the edge of town and made a special trip to drop off our goods – and lighten our conscious, knowing we were not negatively impacting the local landfill. But we kept wondering aloud “why is this so difficult?” and “shouldn’t a hip, mountain community like this be actively promoting caring for the Earth?” It’s hard when we leave our homes and habits and feel like we’re subject to a lower level of eco-friendly standards.

I appears, however, that I’m not alone in wishing for more thoughtful travel routines and systems. According to the Center for Responsible Travel, “recent surveys and market studies document the sustained interest among consumers in types of tourism and tourism products that help to protect the environment and bring tangible benefits to local communities.” While the concept of “ecotourism” has existed since the 1980s, the tourism industry is now – in the face of climate change and increased visitorship to unique and fragile ecosystems and cultures – ramping up efforts to meet consumer demand and preserve the unique places people want to visit.

To be clear, ecotourism is much more than recycling while you’re away. It’s about responsible travel that conserves the natural environment and has a positive impact on the local economy and the well-being of the people living there. Some definitions go further to include aspects of knowledge-building, understanding, and education. The International Ecotourism Society has a great set of principles listed HERE under the categories of Conservation, Communities, and Interpretation that can be summarized as:

  • providing effective economic incentives for conserving and enhancing bio-cultural diversity
  • empowering local communities to fight against poverty and achieve sustainable development
  • promoting a greater understanding and appreciation of nature, local society, and culture

Some might envision ecotourism as jungle adventures in Costa Rica. And while these and other far-flung exploits are offered across the globe (by organizations like Responsible Travel), it’s easy to make sure your next family trip to your cousin’s wedding is thoughtful and eco-friendly, too. Here are some tips from Green Global Travel:

  • Pack light
  • Save water
  • Save energy
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle
  • Buy local
  • Leave only footprints
  • Be a traveler, not a tourist
  • Honor local traditions
  • Give back

You can find details, including a bit of history of the evolution of ecotourism at GreenGlobalTravel.com.

Did you know…

The United Nations declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Find out more HERE.

Wisconsin has supported a Travel Green initiative since 2006 that aims to “promote smart, environmentally friendly business practices.” The program certifies events and businesses that prove they working to reduce their environmental impact. The website provides a directory of certified businesses (you’ll spot several Nature Net member sites) and trip ideas.

BBC’s Radio Show “Shared Planet” has an episode (2013) dedicated to ecotourism – check it out HERE – where experts debate whether ecotourism is truly helpful or in reality harmful to the environment.

To Do This Month:

  • Take advantage of Madison’s frozen lakes and try out Ice Fishing! Check out ice fishing tips from local, seasoned veterans as well as how to turn it into an adventure the whole family can enjoy.
  • Enjoy a Winter Walk with the Wisconsin Union. Experience Winter in Wisconsin with a snowshoe hike along Lakeshore Path to a winter bonfire at Picnic Point.
  • Hit the slopes at Devil’s Head Resort and ski one of the 30 scenic trails the resort has to offer. If skiing isn’t for you, check out the multitude of available hiking trails.
  • Learn how to Travel Green in Wisconsin and support all of the local Travel Green certified businesses – finally, shopping for a cause!
  • For more Winter activities in Wisconsin, explore the Travel Wisconsin website and see what Winter in Wisconsin has to offer.

Find more fun and educational nature-related events on the Nature Net Calendar.

Binocular Craft

Our Favorite Ecotourism Books

Cave of the Mounds

Events this Month

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For Educators:

Green Schoolyards America 

Not all travel needs to be far. More and more schools are using their school grounds as learning labs and exploration spaces. Nature Net recently contributed to the Green Schoolyards America “Living Schoolyard Activities Guide” with a schoolyard version of Nature Passport. Check out the excerpt below for inspiration or download the full guide HERE (Nature Net is found on page 106).

Survey your school grounds for various areas that differ from one another. Examples might include wooded, grassy, short grass, tall grass, shady, sunny, blacktop, playground, garden (if you have one), hilly, flat, busy, quiet. You can map these out and name each location or simply devise in your mind where you would like to visit, and where you think you may see or otherwise sense plants, animals and other natural phenomena.


  • Give each child a passport journal and a writing utensil.
  • You may want to start out with a primer on how travel takes us to new lands and gives us a new perspective on the world around us. Encourage children to think about and examine the places you visit as if they’ve never been there before. What new things might they see? What kinds of nature may exist? What might you see if you’re quiet or look closely?
  • You may choose to create tickets and assign “seats” as their place in line.
  • Visit each site and allow students time to explore, listen, get down low, smell, or just sit quietly and observe. Have them note down in their passports what they see in each new place – different plants, animals, scenery, sights and sounds they encounter. This can be in the form of drawings or writing.
  • Suggest that they consider what they would put in a postcard to their families or friends back “home” describing their travels.
  • Stamp their passports to signify they’ve visited each site.
  • You may choose to make multiple travel stops in one day or visit your locations throughout the year. Note (or make predictions on) how places change through the seasons. What animals do you see or not see? What textures and smells are different? Does the wind move or sound distinct in each season or location?

Find out more about the work Green Schoolyards America is doing in the fields of research, policy, and support for schoolyard transformations – from “asphalt to ecosystems” – by visiting their website: GreenSchoolyards.org.

For Families:

Hike it Baby

If you’re looking for a community of fellow hikers who will happily enable your family getting out more often, look no further than Hike it Baby. Over 300 branches exist in the US (including 11 in Wisconsin). Each branch is organized by volunteers who host and or post hikes through social media and invite others to join. Hike it Baby clarifies that all are welcome by listing the following definitions on their website:

We use the terms “hike” and “baby” in Hike it Baby very loosely. Hike can mean anything from a dirt path up a mountain, a trail through the woods, gathering to play at a city or neighborhood park, an urban stroll to grab some coffee, or seasonal indoor events. And baby refers to any child, no matter their age.

All hikes are community-led and anyone can submit a fee-free hike for the calendar. Events begin with a welcome circle and focus on inclusiveness as well as adherence to Leave No Trace ethics and practices. There is a $10 annual membership fee but you can try it out for free for the first 90 days.

Even with the polar vortex looming down on us, the local Hike it Baby chapter plans to warm up in the Olbrich Conservatory and continue “inspiring all families with babies and young children to get outside and connect with nature.”

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.