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Hello, Friend. 

Spring is always an exciting time at the Garden with the California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) dazzling in the meadow. But, this year the real excitement is down in the Canyon, just beyond the Campbell Bridge.

In a few short weeks, years of dreaming and planning will become the Backcountry.

Growing up in Texas, I remember the days of running along the local creek with my friends on hot summer days. We would explore for hours, building tree houses and catching fish, crawfish, and the occasional snake — losing all track of time. It wasn’t until one of us was hollered home for dinner that we would have to disband. It was there that I discovered the importance of identifying plants — most specifically poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) — and how that could ruin a perfect location for a tree house! But more than that, I loved discovering the abundant life in the area and trying to learn where these animals lived and what they ate. This is where my love of the natural world began to grow.

I have heard from many longtime residents of Santa Barbara that the Garden was a similar place for you when you were growing up, but at some point, that carefree child-directed exploration ceased to be a component of the Garden. I have wanted to bring that back to the Garden since I arrived over 11 years ago, and with the Backcountry, we are so close to seeing it happen.

With your help, the Backcountry will be a place of wonder where young people and the young at heart can explore, climb, jump, run, and engage in their natural surroundings. 

Our hope is that the Backcountry is a rediscovery of what it means to be in nature. In the Backcountry, nature is the teacher; it’s a place where children can learn important lessons and test their boundaries in a healthy way, which is especially important in today’s increasingly digital way of life.

According to a study by the University of Michigan, kids ages 6 to 17 spend only four to seven minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play compared to the four to six hours spent watching or using screens (and for teens, this number jumps to nine hours). Even preschoolers are spending nearly three hours in front of a screen every day. While technology itself is not inherently the problem, this data suggests that with only so many hours in a day, time spent engaging with nature may be losing out to time spent engaging with devices like cell phones.

Through decades of nature-education programming here at the Garden, we know that getting kids excited about nature isn’t about presenting a set of facts or charts, or even cool maps. It’s about connecting with their instinct for story and play, igniting their imaginations and stimulating their senses. We want children to be able to lose — and discover — themselves in nature.

But we need your help to bring this to fruition. We are so close to reaching our $4 million goal which includes construction, maintenance, operational support for the first three years, and a permanent endowment to ensure that we have seven-days-a-week staffing and funds for maintenance into the future.

Will you support our future generations of explorers? Your gift, of any amount, will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, up to $200,000. No gift is too small!

The Backcountry was designed to teach and inspire a lifelong interest, enthusiasm, and respect for the natural world. At the end of the day, we want to encourage the next generation of conservationists. We can’t wait to enable all children in our community to create new memories of playing and learning in the Garden — who in 20 or 30 years will be able to bring their own kids and reconnect with the natural world.

By supporting the Backcountry, you are ensuring that generations of children will have the opportunity to discover nature through unstructured play in a safe place designed especially for them. Will you donate today?

Thank you and see you in the Backcountry,


Steve Windhager, Ph.D. 

Executive Director 

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden