I have the privilege of attending the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors this Friday. The conference will bring men and women from across the United States to Washington to talk about what they’re doing to restore and conserve the places they’re from, to exchange learning from past and present efforts, and “to reinvigorate the national conversation about our outdoors,” as the conference’s announcement puts it.
In preparing for the conference, I’ve been thinking not so much about the Washington policy issues likely to come up at the meeting. Instead, I’ve been thinking much more about all those remarkable places. For 38 years, before coming to work at the Conservancy’s headquarters in Arlington 20 months ago, I, too, worked and lived “out there”:
- In an old mill town on the banks of the first industrialized river in America;
- In Rhode Island, where the state’s citizens decided that much of its magnificent shoreline should belong to them;
- In New York, with its long conservation tradition extending back to the Hudson Valley painters, to Theodore Roosevelt and the creation of Central Park and the Adirondack Park;
- And finally, in Florida and the South — where hauntingly beautiful rivers wind their way to the sea, and where, years before the modern environmental movement began, Mississippi writer and artist Walter Anderson described evening on the barrier islands of the Gulf of Mexico as “the magic hour before sunset when all things are related.”
I figured out once that, during all those years, I have participated in more than 2,000 public meetings and listened to thousands of people talk, not always politely, about the future they wanted or didn’t want.
Even today, while I’m no longer in the field, I get to work for The Nature Conservancy — an organization that is rooted in real places, that has staff in small towns and city neighborhoods all across America. I learn from those colleagues every day.
All of this listening, all of this experience does not entitle me to speak on behalf of Americans. (About every time I turn on the television or radio, there is someone claiming to speak for Americans, and it is tiresome.)
But I do believe I have a sense of what Americans from very different places and backgrounds think about this country’s magnificent land and water. It is enough to bring tears to my eyes, because, as E.O. Wilson, that wise son of the rural South, has written, there is an essential bond between most people and nature.
I have seen that bond in the eyes of a Florida rancher leaning forward from behind the wheel of his pickup truck to watch a swallow-tailed kite wheeling above a live-oak hammock.
I have heard it in the voices of both sides of arguments at a public meeting on a freezing cold night in an Adirondack town hall.
I have heard it in the music of a string band celebrating the creation of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in rural Alabama, and in the laughter of a southeast Asian immigrant family cooking dinner by the shore at a Rhode Island state park.
It used to be, however, that while a broad range of Americans appreciated the outdoors and understood that farms, forests and ranches are important to our national economy and part of America’s way of life, and while a good deal of conservation was accomplished, people’s ideas about how to keep special places intact were very different.
There were and still are conflicts about private property rights, about the role and extent of wilderness, about whether and how to pay landowners for the public values of their land. But now it seems, there is something new happening — a new generation of conservation.
Ranchers and trout fishermen, forestland owners and environmentalists are taking it on themselves to figure out new ways to conserve whole natural areas and watersheds — places big enough for pronghorn antelope and Florida panthers to roam and for striped bass and salmon to swim upstream to spawn.
It is the stories of these places, of these cooperative efforts, that I hope people will bring to Washington this week. From what we hear about the White House meeting, it is mostly about listening — about the leaders of the federal government’s natural resource and environmental agencies paying attention to the voices of citizens who know about the land.
This can be a first step in finding a path to create new, more effective ways of using federal, state and private resources to help Americans restore and protect the places they value and which, in turn, are valuable in so many ways to all of us.
I will let you know if the conference meets these expectations in a weekend blog on what the White House Conference was really like. You can watch and listen, too, at www.whitehouse.gov live beginning at 8:30 Friday morning.
(Image: Penobscot Tribal members fishing on Maine’s Penobscot River. Credit: Bridget Besaw.)