This evening, President Obama unveiled his plan to save America’s Great Outdoors and issued a conservation call to action to all Americans. Surrounded by ranchers, hunters, city mayors, conservationists, state officials, recreation business owners and young people, the President urged us to step up our efforts to protect our lands and waters.
In doing so, he pledged his administration’s commitment to conserving the natural resources that we depend on for our health and quality of life. Now it’s up to communities around the nation to answer that call.
The President announced the beginning of an America’s Great Outdoors Initiative at a day-long meeting last April with a similar audience from around the country held at the Department of Interior here in Washington. At that time he pledged that his natural resource and environmental cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials would travel across the country over the following several months to listen to what citizens had to say about conservation in America in the 21st Century.
This is exactly what happened. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, and CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley and a bunch of Assistant and Deputy Assistant Secretaries got on the road to listen to what ordinary people had to say about parks and open spaces across America. Close to 200,000 Americans participated in this historic conversation – either online or in-person at one of the more than 40 official, youth and homegrown listening sessions held across the country in 2010.
These meetings were often held in places where local folks and public agencies had already come together to accomplish important, large-scale conservation on the ground. I was at some of these events and saw Secretary Vilsack talking to ranchers in the Blackfoot Valley in western Montana, Secretary Salazar speaking at a school auditorium in Annapolis, Maryland, about the future of the Chesapeake Bay, and USDA Under-Secretary, Harris Sherman, listening intently to high school and college students in New York’s Hudson Valley.
And now, the President has released an America’s Great Outdoors Report that you can support that incorporates much of what these officials heard. Along with my colleagues at The Nature Conservancy, I have looked over these proposals, and, if implemented, they would be an historic step forward in our country’s long history of conservation. The America’s Great Outdoors plan reflects what I heard people saying at the meetings and, not surprisingly, the same sorts of things that I heard at the Cooperative Conservation meeting in St. Louis held by the Bush Administration near the end of its term:
- That conservation initiatives are most effective these days when they are community led– are the product of agencies, non-profits, landowners, outdoor user groups coming together to find creative ways to conserve the places they live and work. So the report recommends funding and incentives for such cooperative, community based conservation including the long-term voluntary protection of privately owned working ranches, farms and forests. The new National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas’ Flint Hills tallgrass prairie is a good example.
- That the Federal government must learn to be more efficient and effective in how it spends conservation dollars. This means whole new levels of interagency cooperation, targeting funds to the best conservation sites where there is strong public support and carefully measuring the results.
- That no matter how efficient the government is, reliable, long-term sources of funding are needed to sustain conservation in good times and bad, but these are small amounts of money compared to the overall Federal budget. Particularly important is the full funding at $900 million of the Land and Water Conservation Fund now included in the President’s 2012 budget proposal.
- That if we want to continue America’s long and proud conservation tradition, we must ensure that all American’s have access to outdoor experiences particularly for young people, whether by giving them the opportunity to hunt, fish or observe nature, or by getting them involved in hands on efforts to restore the health of forests and shorelines.
All this seems possible if we can do what the great majority of citizens say they want in public opinion polls, conservation ballot initiatives, and hundreds of thousands of comments received by the Administration in the America’s Great Outdoors’ process– continue to invest some small portion of our nation’s wealth in land and water conservation. Conservation in America has been supported by both parties now for nearly 140 years since the creation of Yellowstone Park by President Grant in 1872; despite all our other problems, we can afford to continue that support.
At last summer’s listening session in the Blackfoot Valley of western Montana, the young son of the rancher on whose property the meeting was being held stood by the doorway of the big tent set up in a field to shelter the participants from the unpredictable mountain weather. He was looking alternately at the Secretary of Agriculture, Montana’s two Senators and the state’s Governor and, then, outside at snow capped mountains in the distance passing from shadow into sunshine as clouds streamed across Montana’s famous big sky.
I believe the authors of the America’s Great Outdoors’ Report had this kid, and others like him all across America, in mind when they wrote their recommendations. They did a good job of laying out a practical pathway forward for conservation in this next century. It will take a long time and more cooperation between political parties and government agencies than we’ve seen lately to follow that pathway. But as a society, if we can’t agree to continue and build upon our country’s longstanding conservation successes we’re really in trouble. We’re letting that rancher’s son down and with him the generations of future Americans who will, without question, benefit from and enjoy America’s Great Outdoors. I hope you’ll join us in showing your support for the plan to save America’s great outdoors.
(Photo: The Nature Conservancy Niobrara Valley Preserve, Brown County, Nebraska. McGill Tract. By Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy.)