South Dakota State University Extension and South Dakota 4-H have recently started a new program that provides experiences and education to young people interested in outdoor education and natural resources.

The yearlong program called Outdoor, Wilderness and Life Skills, or OWLS, is run by the SDSU 4-H community, which stands for head, heart, hands and health. The program was adopted from University of Minnesota Extension and is now in the state of South Dakota for the first time.

The OWLS program, that originally was supposed to start in fall 2020 but was delayed due to COVID-19, begins in the month of October and will end in July each year. So far, the program consists of monthly webinars and quarterly campouts. The monthly webinar is a resource to those participants about what will be expected of them month-to-month and what else to expect going forward.

Different activities such as "Leave No Trace Principles," "Ten Essentials of Survival," and others will be explained in detail virtually at the monthly webinar before the in-person learning begins.

SDSU is providing similar opportunities in the yearlong program, but with a different age range intended for different results. University of Minnesota Extension allows kids as young as 11 to register, while SDSU Extension designed its program for ages 14 and up.

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“It targets a different group, so rather than just a one-off program that might get the youth interested, but not invested, we have youth that are invested in the program and interested in what they’re learning,” SDSU Extension Youth Outdoor Education Field Specialist Katherine Jaeger said. “And then repetitive exposure in topics and skills, is the way things can build up so we can build on what we learn … We want to build on skills incrementally throughout the year.”

Outdoor skills range from fire building, tree identification, fishing, fish cleaning and archery will be taught to the youth with comprehensive training. Experts from South Dakota 4-H, as well as South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (GF&P), will partner to provide and demonstrate outside skills in three hands-on camping experiences, along with a year-end adventure.

“The program provides hands-on environmental natural resources, skills and practices,” Jaeger said. “We wanted to create an outlet for them to learn those skills and practice them in safe ways.”

The purpose of the OWLS Program is to educate and engage teen participants in a variety of activities to better prepare them to be good stewards of the land.

A sample calendar for year one of OWLS could include events from canoeing, kayaking and outdoor cooking in Oakwood Lakes State Park to snowshoeing, camping and winter survival in Custer State Park.

“It’s designed towards youth that want to dive into outdoor education and natural resources a little bit deeper,” Jaeger said. “There’s nothing like this in the state, so it’s a need we’re filling here.”