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CHARLESTON -- Michael Davis sat at the corner of King and Calhoun streets in downtown Charleston Friday, honking and quacking on a new duck call loud enough to wake the ancient city's dead.
He's an 18-year-old from the Lowcountry metropolis of Moncks Corner. He's been hunting since he was 7, but on this day he was with a school group at the 31st annual Southeastern Wildlife Exposition.
Davis -- who paid $10 for the Buck Gardner duck call at the Ducks Unlimited tent -- said he's like most kids in Moncks Corner. He lives for the outdoor sporting life. As a student in a statewide, online charter school, he can even keep up with his studies while sitting in a duck blind.
"I hunt duck, 'coon, bear, deer, anything," he said.
Davis should be the poster child for the exposition. With its 300-plus exhibitors and $64 million annual economic impact, it bills itself as the largest wildlife and nature event in the nation. It stars birds of prey demonstrations, diving dogs, SeaWorld's Julie Scardina and "Wild in the Kitchen" cooking demonstrations by the likes of chef Michelle Weaver of the Charleston Grill.
But a big question among the 40,000 people who attend is about the future. Their goal is to see more kids like Davis out watching the sun rise over the marsh.
They wonder whether the grand exposition matters at all, if future generations don't bother to go outside.
THE 'OFF' BUTTON
The future is square in the sights of the exposition mission statement:
"Its programs underscore the need for educating ourselves and our children about the conservation and preservation of our wild and natural resources.
"Through art, exhibits, lectures, school programs, and financial giving, the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition increases awareness of the natural gifts which are increasingly taken for granted. Focusing attention on local, regional and global issues -- the exposition presents a forum which brings these issues 'home' and personalizes them, with the hope that one day attention to conservation and environmental issues will be as commonly taught as ABCs.
"By creating this new environmental morality, SEWE is working to make us aware of our natural treasures, and of the need to protect and preserve them for the future."
At a booth celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, children are able to handle a docile corn snake from Jasper County.
At other booths they hear about rain barrels, an adopt-a-dune program, kayaking adventures, outdoor opportunities at National Wildlife Refuges and National Forests, or this plea on a poster beside a locked down Eastern diamondback rattlesnake: "Nobody says, 'The only good polar bear is a dead polar bear.' Yet every day many people don't think twice about saying the same thing about imperiled snake species. Let's change that."
Something else they want to change is a creeping lethargy in society.
They want to introduce children, and parents, to the most powerful high-tech tool they've never heard of: the "off" button.
During the life span of the exposition, a lot of positive things have happened.
Nature-based tourism has become a force in the Lowcountry. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been preserved for wildlife habitat in the ACE Basin and elsewhere.
The Edisto River Canoe & Kayak Trail was designated as South Carolina's first paddling trail in 1987. Now it includes 81 miles, and the commission that maintains it has all but worked its way out of its job of teaching safe paddling and ecological appreciation. Four commercial operations now help, volunteers say, and they see subtle signs that people on the river are starting to get it. They pick up trash. They stop to appreciate wildlife rather than disturb it.
The Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center on U.S. 17 above Charleston, and the private Sewee Association that supports it, educates about 1,500 students a month on the ecosystems of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and the Francis Marion National Forest.
And down the coast at the private St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island, 8,000 to 10,000 students explore nature each year.
David Gardner, director of environmental education at the 75-year-old camp's "Barrier Island Experience," said kids love nature when they get out in it.
"Parents are the key," he said. "People age 30 to 50 need to be the ones getting out there. If parents are interested, their kids are interested."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.