Noting that the younger generations are "taking on the mantle of the outdoors," National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis and other officials solicited suggestions on how to connect people with the outdoors during a North Carolina stop on the nationwide tour of America's Great Outdoor Initiative.
The listening session Thursday in Asheville was just the latest as the Obama administration goes coast-to-coast to collect input on how to reconnect Americans with their natural landscapes.
President Obama launched this national dialogue about conservation in America to learn about some of the smart, creative ways communities are conserving outdoor spaces. At the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors in April, the president established the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to reconnect Americans with our great outdoors. As the nation’s largest land manager, the federal government has a responsibility to engage with its partners in order to help develop a conservation agenda worthy of the 21st Century. But more than two-thirds of the land in the U.S. is privately owned, so protecting and restoring the lands and waters that we love must be community driven and supported.
At that time, the president directed the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality to lead this effort and to listen and learn from people all over the country.
“Even in times of crisis, we’re called to take the long view to preserve our national heritage — because in doing so we fulfill one of the responsibilities that falls to all of us as Americans,” President Obama said.
Public listening sessions are being held nationwide, most of them in large cities, but Washington obviously realized what treasures Western North Carolina holds in public lands - Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway (celebrating its 75th anniversary), the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, as well as the Appalachian Trail and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail -- when it scheduled the Asheville session.
How can we make all this wonderful parkland relevant to a diverse audience, especially young people and folks who usually don't camp and hike in our parks? More than 230 adults from the outdoor community registered but many more came. In addition, a youth session was held in the morning.
Tom Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, extolled Asheville's natural setting as well as its conservation groups.
Park Service Director Jarvis explained to the audience that "we want to listen to young people - their ideas and experiences. They're taking on the mantle of the outdoors. Yes, we all know that we're in tough economic times now but the federal budget is driven by people."
Their agencies are charged with writing a report for the president with specific recommendations on reconnecting people with the outdoors. The president asked for this early in his tenure. This report will help drive President Obama's budget request to Congress. "We can learn a lot about outdoor activities that work here," Director Jarvis said.
Director Jarvis grew up in the Shenandoah Valley and has been with the National Park Service for 35 years. He used the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs 469 miles south from Shenandoah to Great Smoky as an example of a valuable landscape that public and private organizations and agencies must come together on to see endure.
"The parkway is a ribbon park. The federal government owns a narrow strip. How do we protect the viewsheds? We can't buy all the land as far as the eye can see. We need the cooperation of other organizations," he said
Dee Freeman, head of North Carolina's Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, representing Gov. Bev Perdue, was very pleased that the Great Outdoor Initiative came to North Carolina. "It's an important event for North Carolina and the nation," Mr. Freeman said. "There are lessons that they'll take away from the state. You'll see North Carolina in this report."
The theme of tough economic times was repeated several times during the Asheville session. Assistant Secretary Strickland invoked history to remind the audience that Abraham Lincoln protected Yosemite during the Civil War, that Teddy Roosevelt held the first outdoor summit in 1908 when others wanted to mine the Grand Canyon, and that the Blue Ridge Parkway was started during the Great Depression.
Mr. Jarvis, who has spent the past six weeks dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis, reminded the audience that human ecology and nature are linked. Julie Judkins, of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Southern Office in Asheville, reported on the youth session that attracted 60 people ages 14 to 20. Suggestions included Turn off TV Day and parks for older children, as some were of the opinion that most parks are aimed at children younger than 10 years old. Smokey the Bear needs to be updated - give him an iPhone, was another suggestion.
Then it was time for the government park and forest leaders to listen. The audience was broken up into groups, based on the interests they specified when they registered. Each breakout session was led by a high-level official, assisted by a scribe with a laptop. In each session, we discussed:
1. What works: What are the most effective strategies for conservation, recreation, and reconnecting people to the outdoors that you have used?
2. Challenges: What obstacles exist to achieve your goals for conservation, recreation, or reconnecting people to the outdoors?
3. Federal government role: How can the federal government be a more effective partner in helping to achieve conservation, recreation, or reconnecting people to the outdoors?
4. Tools: What additional tools and resources would help your efforts be even more successful?
Marisue Hilliard, supervisor of National Forests in North Carolina, led one of the recreation sessions. Many outdoor programs are working, she said.
* Muddy Sneakers (www.muddysneakers.org) is a program for 5th graders in public schools which got them outdoors and connecting with nature.
* Nantahala Hiking Club uses the Appalachian Trail as part of the school curriculum.
* Outdoor recreation planner discussed that his town, Boone, and county, created a continual revenue stream for outdoor infrastructure with a hotel tax
* Carolina Mountain Club has several large volunteer crews that maintain over 400 miles of trail.
In the Stewardship session headed by Director Jarvis, ideas were flying.
* Ken Voorhees of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont described a 3-to-5 day in-depth programs for children. This was described as having more impact than serving a larger number of kids for just an afternoon.
* Bill Van Horne of the Nantahala Hiking Club was concerned about the perceived liability problem of volunteer adults taking children in the woods.
* Several Student Conservation Association interns pointed out that there's too much paperwork to get interns in park.
* Many first-time visitors don't know what to do when they get in a park. Maybe the parks could rent out camping equipment, canoes, and bikes, was one suggestion.
* The government should create a national register of outdoor events, similar to American Hiking Society's National Trail Days. Though www.recreation.gov is an attempt at this, it's not very clear or comprehensive.
You can find more information on the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative and submit comments on-line at: www.doi.gov/americasgreatoutdoors.
A report summing up all the listening sessions is due out on November 15 of this year.