Retiring REI CEO Dennis Madsen announced today the formation of a new foundation dedicated to introducing young people to the outdoors.

The Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund was launched last night with commitments well exceeding $750,000 and a goal to raise $5 million over the next several years. The foundation will annually fund a targeted number of outdoor programs serving young people, with the goal of helping youth develop a lifelong appreciation for the natural world and outdoor recreation. The fund’s founding contributions include a $250,000 personal ledge by Madsen and a $250,000 donation from Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). VF Corporation, parent company of The North Face® and JanSport® outdoor brands, made an additional $250,000 contribution. Tim Boyle and the team at Columbia Sportswear Company made another significant contribution.

In addition to its initial donation, REI has pledged $250,000 in both 2006 and 2007 to encourage the fund’s sustained growth. In announcing the creation of the fund, Madsen said he was actively seeking significant funding commitments from major donors to help the fund move quickly toward its target.

“I’ve enjoyed the great fortune of having the outdoors as a daily part of my life, all of my life,” Madsen said. “As a child I was introduced to the outdoors by adult volunteers who were willing to spend their time sharing the outdoors with young people. The Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund will help fund new programs and organizations working to fuel the interest of a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts.”

Madsen noted that today’s young people are widely recognized as less inclined to enjoy the outdoors than previous generations. Technology, shifting family structures, time constraints, competing demands and rapid urbanization all make getting to and enjoying the outdoors more complex today than a generation ago. The shift is not positive as many current reports show that inactivity is creating a more sedentary, less healthy lifestyle for many young people. Serious symptoms of this epidemic include increasing obesity rates across society, particularly among young people, as well as a range of other health related concerns.

Through its giving the fund will support the work of high quality non-profit organizations that help introduce young people to the outdoors, provide young people with outdoor life skills training and offer young people an opportunity to participate in the stewardship of the outdoors. The fund will focus on, but does not limit its giving to, organizations and programs that offer children, whom might not otherwise have the opportunity, a chance to experience the natural world.

The fund will be administered through The Seattle Foundation, a highly respected and professionally managed community foundation. Grant making will be overseen by the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund board.

“I’ve tried to give back along the way; but as I prepare to complete a 39-year career with REI, I want to make sure I help leave a legacy, and I can think of no better group to support than young people,” Madsen said. “With the support of others, the foundation can make a real difference in getting kids outdoors, which is good for helping raise healthy kids; and it’s good for the future of the outdoors because the future generations will only protect what they care about. If they understand the wonders of the outdoors, I believe today’s young people will be active in making outdoor stewardship an important part of their life.”