Months in development, the America's Great Outdoors initiative is a broad road map drawn by the Obama administration to both reconnect Americans with the outdoors and outline how the country can preserve much of its natural landscape. But how timely, in light of current fiscal and political winds, is it?
More so, couldn't many of its goals have been put in motion, or even accomplished, without this 111-page initiative that is "aimed at reigniting our historic commitment to conserving and enjoying the magnificent natural heritage that has shaped our nation and its citizens."
Many of the issues raised in those pages -- a disconnect between younger generations and the American landscape, the need to protect through conservation and preservation parklands, forests, farms, rivers, and streams, and improved access to those lands -- are not new but rather have been debated over and over again.
It was six years ago that author Richard Louv captured much of the country's attention with Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," a warning that today's children are disconnected from nature. In that book, Mr. Louv offered solutions ranging from a "back-to-the-land movement" focused on the Great Plains and rural areas built around "a new kind of farm and village life" to a 'green urbanism" that blends "green-urban infill, green towns, increased public transit options, and greater use of telecommuting and teleconferencing."
Mr. Louv also discussed "building technologically and ethically sophisticated human-scale population centers that, by their very design, reconnect both children and adults to nature." His call for greater mass transit options to connect urban areas to rural landscapes is echoed in the president's report.
And while the America's Great Outdoors initiative proposes a Conservation Services Corps to draw youth outdoors, don't groups such as the Student Conservation Association, the Boy and Girl scouts, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters already do that?
Fiscal And Political Realities
Don't overlook the fiscal realities: The National Park Service has a maintenance backlog in the neighborhood of $8 billion and the president's proposed FY12 budget for the agency, while overall providing a slight $138 million increase over current levels, would cut $81 million from its construction budget. In an effort to slow further growth of the existing backlog, the budget does propose $3.2 million for cyclic maintenance and $7.5 million for repair and rehabilitation projects, but the inequity is obvious.
Politically, emboldened House Republicans anxious to blunt the federal deficit have shown no interest in coming close to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a task that would take $900 million. The America's Great Outdoors initiative relies heavily on that full funding, which, proponents note, would come from royalties flowing from oil and gas leases on public lands.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, understandably, is optimistic the funding necessities can be taken care of to the point that the initiative isn't pushed onto the equivalent of a dead-end rail siding.
“The president has said on his budget that it's a tough choices budget, and it is. It’s a tough choices budget for all of us," Mr. Salazar told the Traveler last week. "We’re funding these investments because this is the way that we are going to win the future, and part of what we’re doing through the leadership of (Council of Environmental Quality Chair) Nancy (Sutley) and (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator) Lisa (Jackson) and (Agriculture Secretary) Tom (Vilsack) and the rest of the administration is also figuring out ways in which we can do things more efficiently, so how we bring in the revenue streams that we might have in Interior and combine those with revenue streams in EPA and over at USDA.
"I think we’re going to be able to find a way to implement this 21st century conservation agenda," the secretary said.
Showing His Environmental Cards
From Kristen Brengel's viewpoint, the initiative is necessary if only because it lets Americans know the Obama administration's agenda when it comes to nature and youth.
“I think we do need the report," said Ms. Brengel, the National Parks Conservation Association's director of Legislative and Government Relations. "I think it’s important for our leaders in the country to tell us what they’re thinking about national parks and other places that we care about so deeply. A lot of times these decisions that are made, on whether it’s funding a program or making a policy recommendation on an issue, are done in isolation and we never understand where the leaders of our country are going with this idea or this decision.
"I think this report really lays out the thinking that’s happening at the highest levels of the White House, the Interior Department, the Forest Service. It gives us an idea of what they care about the most, and where they see themselves putting time into their work."
Beyond that, Ms. Brengel said the document, while perhaps repetitive of other programs and initiatives in some areas, makes a strong connection with the president's FY12 budget proposal.
"I think that their FY12 budget reflects their priority that they’re putting on LWCF (the Land and Water Conservation Fund) and other programs," she said during a phone conversation from her Washington office. "They are showing some consistency with what’s in this report and what’s reflected in the FY12 budget. So it gives you some background on where the limited money they do have should go."
The initiative also seeks to tie together the various land-management agencies on shared concerns, said the NPCA official.
“There is some new emphasis on the need for scientific research and need for collaboration between different agencies and, believe it or not, as much as there has been some collaboration in the past, no administration has really talked about this level of collaboration between the different agencies, whether it’s Forest Service or Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service. ... This is so much of a higher level to address climate-change issues, and wildlife corridors, try to tackle some of these larger issues with management on the ground instead of having all these agencies work in isolation.”
All On Board?
Among the other groups applauding the America's Great Outdoors initiative were the Student Conservation Association, Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society, and some business leaders and residents of Western states.
“Our public lands not only provide unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities, but they also provide a $730 billion economic generator that can’t be done more cheaply in China or copied in Bangladesh,” said Peter Metcalf, CEO/president and co-founder of Black Diamond Equipment, an outdoor gear manufacturer based in Salt Lake City. “America’s Great Outdoors can help ensure that our children and grand children always can enjoy this timeless and unique American legacy.”
At the Center For American Progress, officials pointed out that U.S. Census statistics show that "we are at the highest proportion of developed land in U.S. history. The core strategy for the America's Great Outdoors initiative is to target resources to the needs identified by local communities. In addition, the plan will make it easier for Americans to get jobs working on conservation efforts by lowering obstacles to working with federal agencies."
Wilderness Society President William Meadows said tough financial times shouldn't stand in the way of achieving the goals outlined by the initiative.
“It is foolish in a time of belt tightening to neglect our forests, rivers and deserts that supply us with clean air and water for free,” he said. “I have seen firsthand how investing in our parks and rivers protects our communities now and pays long-term dividends with billions and billions of dollars. America’s Great Outdoors will ensure that families have places and opportunities to fish, picnic, and take vacations now and forever, whether they go to a city park or a national park.”
Getting Today's Youth to be Tomorrow's Leaders
Concerning the Conservation Services Corps, Interior Secretary Salazar said the program would complement existing avenues that seek to connect youth with the outdoors, benefit the landscape and, possibly, lead those involved into careers tied to the landscapes.
“What we need to do is expand on what we already have, and certainly the partnerships that we have with the Student Conservation Association is something that we all use," he said. "This is an overall effort that will go beyond the Department of Interior. Certainly it includes the Forest Service, the USDA, and other agencies where we are attempting to get young people connected to the work that we do.
“For two reasons," he went on: "The first is young people go out and actually help us do the work that we have to do, whether it's maintenance on trails or cleaning up facilities. It’s a good way for us to be able to get our work done. And second of all, it exposes young people to opportunities of the outdoors. And for many young people ... it opens up their eyes to the possibilities of what they could do with careers in biology, and wildlife, and water and a whole host of other things."
SCA President Dale Penny said the Conservation Services Corps would help forge future leaders in careers touching resource conservation and historic preservation, careers that “will extend our natural and cultural heritage for decades, if not centuries, to come.”
"By engaging our young people in the outdoors, we ensure that nature will remain relevant and valued resource throughout their lives,” Mr. Penny said in a prepared statement. “Just as important, these initiatives will help our children lead healthier lifestyles and gain greater capacities and confidence. This is a classic win-win for our country.”