Three shaggy bison on the hillside to our left pushed their faces into the snow to get at the grass underneath. A cloud passed across the low winter sun casting a shadow on the mountains in the distance. Eight of us, three generations of our family, were making our way along a trail near the Gardiner River in Yellowstone National Park. The two small girls, both born in Montana where their parents live and work, were in packs carried by their mothers. I stayed back to take a photograph. From a distance, one could imagine us as a family band of the Shoshone tribe returning to their camp in the valley below hundreds of years ago. Yellowstone remains so unchanged today because in 1872 it became the first National Park on Earth.

But despite America’s long conservation tradition, outdoor America is at risk now more than ever. Our country loses 3 million acres of land a year to development. Severe economic problems at the Federal, state and local levels limit our ability to protect and manage natural places. The drive for more domestic energy is threatening our land and water. Farm and ranch families are facing many obstacles in maintaining their home places, their traditional ways of life, and, thus, the wildlife habitat on their property. Access to outdoor experiences is becoming more and more difficult for young people in both cities and rural areas. Children and families are spending most of their time inside and losing touch with nature.

There is much discussion these days about America and its history being exceptional, blessed, better than in other countries. While there is debate about the dimensions and meaning of such exceptionalism, one aspect of our history very clearly sets us apart from the rest of the world — the idea of conservation of our natural resources as a foundation for the American way of life.

While the first national parks protected the spectacular scenery of the west, the purposes of conservation were soon broadened to serve a wider range of needs. The creation of the Adirondack Park in upstate New York in the 1892 was driven by the decimation of the Adirondack forest and the resulting threat to the state’s water resources. The National Wildlife Refuge System begun by President Theodore Roosevelt at Pelican Island in Florida in 1903 was intended to protect biology as well as scenery. The 19th Century urban park movement believed that all citizens would benefit from time in the outdoors.

Federal, state and local parks, wildlife refuges and forests have now been created in every state, under every administration and with the sponsorship of members of Congress from both parties. In 1964, after study by a bi-partisan national commission which concluded that more money was needed to acquire public lands, a Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was established by Congress to ensure reliable Federal funding for the acquisition of land for Federal parks, forests and refuges and to provide grants to states for conservation and recreation projects.

More recently non-governmental conservation organizations in the U.S. pioneered the idea of private land conservation whereby landowners could voluntarily give or sell their rights to develop their land to non-profit organizations or to government agencies. These conservation easements have now saved from development millions of acres of farms, ranches and forests which remain in productive use but also provide scenic value, wildlife habitat and protection of water resources. Tax incentives have been adopted by Congress to encourage the donation of these easements.

While conservation in America has evolved over the years, it has proceeded in good times and bad. This is, perhaps, because elected officials sense that so much of what they do will be transient, forgotten, but a park, preserve, or protected agricultural landscape is there to stay. And more than a hundred years of evidence suggests that these places will be enjoyed and appreciated by people long after the term or lifetime of the elected official has ended.

Public opinion polls like the one taken by The Nature Conservancy in the fall of 2009 reveal that even in these difficult times, the great majority of Americans continue to believe in this American idea — that some comparatively small portion of our nation’s wealth should be used to set aside places to observe nature, to hunt and fish, to escape the cares of everyday life, to protect the land and water upon which our prosperity and national character are based.

In response to today’s challenges to conservation in America, the Obama Administration launched an America’s Great Outdoors initiative last spring through which the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture and other senior natural resource officials traveled across the country listening to what thousands of citizens had to say about conservation in the 21st Century. The views of all these folks were not very different from what the Bush Administration heard through its Cooperative Conservation Initiative toward the end of its term in office — people want the opportunity to work together with public agencies to accomplish conservation of the resources they value in the places they live and work in ways that fit those places. They want help from government in shaping the future of their land and water.

Later this winter, President Obama is expected to announce the results of the America’s Great Outdoors outreach effort — a new direction for U.S. conservation. One hopes that Administration and the new Congress can work together on a practical, constructive and shared agenda for America’s Great Outdoors just as they have for nearly 140 years since Yellowstone became the first National Park.

At the end of the day we came back to the trail-head and drove in the gathering darkness along Yellowstone’s only road open in the winter, passing two magnificent bull elk foraging in a snow covered meadow. That night around the dinner table we talked about our day outdoors. Someone held up the Yellowstone Park map and brochure, and my two-year-old grand-daughter, Fiona, pointed to its picture and said, “bison!” Conservation is about caring for land and water resources, productive soils, tree-shaded city parks, and places for wildlife, but it is also about saving the best memories of our children. Conservation is about protecting a network of beautiful, historically and naturally important places that are the common ground where families and communities can share experiences across class, race, party, and generations in furtherance of another uniquely American idea—that out of the great diversity of people who have come to this country since Shoshone families traversed the trails of Yellowstone can come one enduring nation.

Image: Bison in Yellowstone National Park. Image credit: © Alan W. Eckert, Alan Eckert Photography.

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