Though bold and lofty in its vision, with chapters devoted to youth, communities, both public and private lands, and heritage, the Obama administration's detailed report on how to reconnect the country to its outdoors landscape is threatened to be undercut by today's fiscal and political realities.
America's Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations is reverential in its stated mission to not just reconnect but firmly cement today's and tomorrow's generations to a clean, healthy, and fully functioning landscape. The magnitude of the 110-page report justified its official release with a White House setting in which President Obama invoked not only President Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson but also Thomas Jefferson and FDR in explaining the significance of the American landscape to the nation's population.
Though the ingredients for the report came from more than 51 public listening sessions held coast-to-coast that drew more than 10,000 participants and produced more than 105,000 comments, the hard work is only just beginning to bring this vision to life.
At a time when national parks are being pressured by outside development, when alpine landscapes are sprinkled by the winds with heavy metals, pesticides, and even dust, when forests are being feasted upon by bark beetles, and climate change is threatening wild lands and wildlife alike, the pulse of American attitudes -- we want to be outdoors, we want the outdoors to be accessible, we want the landscapes to be desirable to our children -- reflected in the report is timely.
But at the same time, many in Congress are not in the mood for adding new programs or expanding budgets, and America's Great Outdoors touches on programs that are not without cost.
Costs in both dollars and community acceptance. At a time when some locals at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area are chafing at rules and regulations the National Park Service implemented to protect plants, animals, and birds, the report points out that, "Today, we recognize that to protect ecosystems, watersheds, and wildlife, conservation must take place across large landscapes. This requires collaboration among landowners, public land agencies, and local communities."
How willing will the requisite collaborators be?
In dollars and sense, the report calls for full-funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is "a primary source of federal funding for states and federal agencies to protect and conserve America’s national treasures and to promote outdoor recreation."
But as President Obama was discussing the report, some members of the House of Representatives were proposing steep cuts -- to less than $60 million according to some reports-- in that fund, which carries $900 million when fully funded.
Desires by the Republican majority on the House Natural Resources Committee to whittle away at the country's environmental laws and regulations also could hamstring the goal of America's Great Outdoors.
The president is well-aware of the mood on Capitol Hill, but he refused to accept that in these difficult times the country should not invest in its landscapes, its environment, its youth.
“In 1786, Thomas Jefferson described the view from Monticello: ‘How sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature,’ he wrote. ‘To see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet,'" said President Obama. “To most Americans at the time, Jefferson’s experience was a familiar one. The vast majority of the continent was wilderness, no matter where you lived you didn’t have to travel far to find acres of open fields and unspoiled forests.
"But in the years that followed, Americans began to push westward, and cities sprang up along river banks and railroad tracks. The nation grew so fast that by 1890, the census director announced that he could no longer identify an American frontier," the president continued. "“And yet, in the midst of so much expansion, so much growth, so much progress, there were a few individuals that had the foresight to protect our most precious national treasures, even in our most trying times. So at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln agreed to set aside more than 60 square miles of land in the Yosemite Valley. Land he had never seen, on the condition that it be preserved for public use.
“Teddy Roosevelt of course, our greatest conservation president, wrote that ‘There’s nothing more practical in the end than the preservation of beauty. Even FDR, in the midst of the Great Depression, enabled the National Park Service to protect America’s most iconic landmarks. From Mount Rushmore to the Statue of Liberty," he said. “So conservation became not only important to America, but it became one of our greatest exports as America’s beauty shone as a beacon to the world, and other countries started adopting conservation measures because of the example that we have set."
The goals of America's Great Outdoors are largely obvious.
* Reconnect all generations, but especially kids, with the outdoors.
“These days our lives are only get more complicated, more busy. We’re glued to our phones and our computers on end," said President Obama. "We see our kids spending more and more time on the couch. For a lot of folks, its easy to go days without stepping on a single blade of grass. At times like these we have to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to break free from the routine and reconnect with the world around us? What can we do to get our kids off the couch and out the door?”
* Be sure that recreational access does not tip the cart when it comes to environmental preservation and stewardship.
"Increasing recreational access must be balanced with the preservation and stewardship responsibilities of the federal land management agencies," the report notes early on. "Each federal land management agency has specific preservation and stewardship responsibilities based on their mission and additional designations such as Wilderness or Wild and Scenic Rivers. Increased recreational access is an important goal of the AGO and a priority for the American people, but it must be developed in ways that are consistent with and appropriate for the specific authorities of each agency."
* In tackling this mission, include not just federal lands but state and local properties, even private lands where possible.
"... in a time when America’s open spaces are controlled by a patchwork of groups, from government to land trusts to private citizens, it's clear that conservation in the 21st century is going to take more than what we can do here in Washington," stressed the president. "... meeting the new test of environmental stewardship means finding the best ideas at the grassroots level. It means helping states, communities and non-profits protect their own resources. And it means figuring out how federal government can be a better partner in those efforts."
The report's narrative noted how difficult this will be.
"Today, we recognize that to protect ecosystems, watersheds, and wildlife, conservation must take place across large landscapes. This requires collaboration among landowners, public land agencies, and local communities," it reads. "Each year about 1.6 million acres of our working farms, ranches, and forests are lost to development and fragmentation. We also face the reality of a warming planet and need to
manage our lands and waters to adapt to these changes. And there is even greater appreciation for the importance of recreation and of the role of public and private lands in providing places for Americans to experience."
* Grow new connections with the land through education.
"Many listening session participants observed that their experiences in nature and at historic places occurred early in their lives through formal and informal education," the report said. "These experiences inspired a lasting connection, and for some, lifelong careers and commitment to service in the outdoors. Cultivating a stewardship ethic through education will produce the next generation of scientists, conservationists, naturalists, farmers, ranchers, forest landowners, anglers, rangers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders who value nature and outdoor experiences."
* By preserving public lands, we benefit society, and wildlife.
"The nation’s mountains, prairies, forests, coasts, deserts, lakes, estuaries, and rivers also provide essential ecosystem services that benefit all Americans. Public lands contain important watersheds that supply drinking water to millions," the report notes. "These lands also sequester significant amounts of carbon annually, thereby reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. Many of America’s most iconic wildlife species—bison, elk, and grizzly bears, among them—greatly depend on public lands for survival.
"Likewise, federal lands and waters sustain people, providing recreation, relaxation, and renewal. Be it a hike, bike, or horseback ride along a local trail, a family ski vacation, a visit to a historic or cultural site, or a weekend fishing or boating trip, access to the great outdoors through our public lands and waters improves our quality of life, while also bringing economic benefit to local communities."
The report is a guide to achieve these goals, the president said.
“We’ve laid the foundation for a smarter, more community driven environmental strategy. To make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live, we’re going to work with cities and states to build and improve urban parks and waterways and make it easier to access public lands," he said. "To encourage young people to put down the remote or the video games and get outside we’re going to establish a new Conservation Service Corps so they can build a lifelong relationship with their natural heritage.
“To help set aside land for conservation and to promote recreation, we’re proposing to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for only the third time in our history, and we’re intending to pay for it with existing oil and gas revenues, because our attitude is if you take something out of the earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the earth," President Obama said.
“So these are the right steps to take for our environment, but they’re also the right steps to take for our country. They help spur the economy, they create jobs by putting more Americans back to work at tourism and recreation, they help inspire a new generation of scientists to learn how the world works, they help Americans stay healthier, by making it easier to spend time outside, and they’ll help carry forth our legacy as a people."
In ending, the president pointed to the words of Rachel Carson, a scientist, writer, and ecologist who in the 1960s raised the American consciousness about the harm chemicals were doing to our environment.
“The great Rachel Carson once wrote that, ‘The real wealth of the nation lies in the resources of the earth. Soil, water, forests, minerals, wildlife. Their administration is not properly and cannot be a matter of politics. It’s something more than politics,'" said the president, adding that the sentiment previously had been voiced by Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. "It’s a call that’s driven generations of Americans to do their part to protect a small slice of the planet. And it’s a call we answer today.”