Whether a multiday backpacking trip, a short hike on your lunch hour or just a little time spent idling outdoors, encounters with the natural world can improve our sense of well-being.

That will be the theme of the 2020 SHIFT Summit, now in its seventh year, which will, for the first time, be broadcast online Oct. 14-16 from Jackson Hole.

The title of this year’s conference, “Healthy by Nature,” refers to the mental health benefits reaped from spending time in nature, a pastime that has received increased attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The summit also will emphasize issues of equitable access to the outdoors and its benefits.

The conference is organized by Christian Beckwith, executive director of the nonprofit SHIFT — it means Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow — which since 2018 has been exploring how to advance nature as a way to increase health. Though Beckwith is a Republican candidate for the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, SHIFT’s message goes across party lines.

“Tying the importance of nature to public health benefits creates a nonpartisan argument that all of us are personally invested in for nature,” Beckwith said. “And we believe that advancing public health as an ecosystem service gives us a powerful argument for the protection of our natural world.”

While people have been going outdoors as a safe way to get out of the house during the pandemic, Beckwith said the mental health benefits of nature, such as reduced stress and higher levels of concentration, have not been publicized as much as the physical ones. A 2019 report from Griffith University in Australia estimated that national park visits create mental health benefits valued at around $6 trillion per year worldwide, SHIFT noted in a press release.

This year the intent of SHIFT is to address the benefits of nature that are less often reported. Three days of online presentations will cover research evidence of the mental health benefits, the work of individuals and organizations translating evidence into practice, and the implementation of policy at all government levels.

A few focal points include the benefits specific to children and young adults, the psychological resilience nature provides, and the ways that resource managers can make nature more accessible. Overall the conference seeks to discuss and exemplify nature as a public health delivery system, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“All the crises that we’re experiencing right now — there is opportunity for seismic social change,” Beckwith said. “Past pandemics have ushered in completely new ways of thinking. The black plague resulted in the Renaissance. The Spanish flu led us to our current health care system. What we’re trying to do with this year’s SHIFT is harness the opportunity to not only center nature more robustly in all of our lives to ensure that we all have safe access to nature, but to rebuild the relationship with the natural world.”

The opening speaker, Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-trained medical epidemiologist, will discuss “the ways we can leverage this historic moment for positive social change,” SHIFT’s website states.

Atiya Wells — the founder of Backyard Basecamp, an organization that connects Baltimore residents with wildlife, and BLISS Meadows, a social justice project that creates equitable access to green space for Black, Indigenous and People of Color — also will give a keynote address on ways to create connections with nature in communities where they are lacking.

With the virtual format, keynote talks will be prerecorded to allow speakers to answer questions via chat during the presentation. Panels will take place live virtually followed by panelists and attendees splitting into breakout rooms for smaller discussions. The full schedule can be found on SHIFT’s website.

Beckwith hopes that attendees will take away an understanding of the “importance of nature to our mental and spiritual well being,” and thereby increase the value of nature in our society.

“If we don’t get back to valuing nature as a centerpiece of everything we do,” he said, “we’re not going to be able to sustain the relationship between the built and natural environment.” 

Contact Danielle at djohnson@jhnewsandguide.com or 732-5901.

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