On Friday, April 16, I participated in the White House Conservation Conference, which launched the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative. As I had hoped, there were representatives there from all 50 states, from the inner city to rural ranching communities, and with perspectives as different as those of the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association — all with their own stories and ideas.

In part because of the diversity of those attending, this was an unusual event for Washington, with great promise for the future of conservation in America and for advancing The Nature Conservancy’s mission. But that promise will only be achieved through a concerted effort by the Obama administration and the nation’s conservation community over the next six months.

There were two parts to the conference:

  • The importance of conservation…and cooperative action to make it happen. The president himself and the nation’s top conservation and environmental officials reaffirmed the importance of to the American people of natural resource conservation and expressed the need to work cooperatively with state and local governments, private landowners and the non-profit sector to achieve conservation success.
  • A new approach to conservation. President Obama committed his adminstration to listen to and work with a broad diversity of groups to shape how that conservation success can be accomplished through a new approach for the 21st century.  This listening began with two diverse panels of experts from outside Washington moderated by Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack and Secretary of Interior Salazar, and then continued with breakout sessions of 20-30 attendees facilitated by senior administration officials.

Why was the White House Conference so unusual?

For many years, we have been accustomed to high profile events in Washington being centered on announcements that, while sometimes representing little real progress, are designed to attract headlines and move on. In contrast, this event was centered on launching a period of intense discussion about how to create a more effective approach to American conservation in the 21st century.

The White House Conference will be followed by site visits by the secretaries of agriculture and interior, the administrator of EPA and the chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and their colleagues to find out more about innovative conservation happening in the field.

It is unusual for Federal agencies to discuss their future direction with such a wide range of people, and even more unusual for them to do this with agency partners to develop a cross-cutting approach to implement their missions. Such outreach efforts can be the foundation of profound change, but they can also be subject to criticism from individual interests who want action on their own narrower issues now.

Why does the conference hold out promise for the future?

Effective conservation in the 21st century requires restoration and protection of whole ecosystems and watersheds for their multiple benefits for nature and people.

This approach is particularly important in this era of climate change. Traditional outright land acquisition will continue to be an important component of a broader approach. But we can hope to be successful in the long run only if both public and private interests can come together to plan for and manage whole landscapes. The America’s Great Outdoors initiative can bring together the best of 20th century conservation with new ideas relevant to and effective in 21st century America.

Why will it be challenging for the conservation community and for the Administration to achieve a tangible and lasting result from all this?

While outreach efforts like that launched this week can produce great results, they are only successful if (a) they move quickly, (b) the input is carefully documented, and (c) the ideas of those consulted are incorporated into plans for decisive action.

For the White House Conservation Conference and the America’s Great Outdoors initiative to be successful, several challenges must be overcome:

  • The outreach effort must have the resources to synthesize what is learned into clean and practical recommendations for action — there should be a relentless drive toward tangible, on-the-ground results;
  • There must be an unprecedented level of cooperation among the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, the EPA and other agencies involved.
  • While much can be accomplished by more effectively using existing funding and programs and developing better partnerships with states, local governments, non-profits and private landowners, additional funding will be needed to glue all this together. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is the most likely source of this funding, and the administration and Congress should be working right now to provide reliable and sufficient financial support for the LWCF.

The America’s Great Outdoors process is an open door for the Conservancy and others concerned about conservation to express the kind of enthusiasm for conservation action that has been revealed by recent public opinion polls.

But unless the Conservancy and other conservation organizations fully engage in and provide momentum to the president’s initiative, other priorities will win out — and this unique opportunity to create the next generation of conservation for the next generation of Americans will be lost.

(Image: President Barack Obama signs a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for agency cooperation on conserving America’s Great Outdoors. Standing behind President L to R: Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley, Environmental Protection Agency Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The event took place at the Department of Interior in Washington, D. C. on April 16, 2010. Image credit: USDAgov/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. I truly hope that we can do something entirely new with respect to our policy and approach toward Nature. We need to respect Living Things as having an inherent right to life in the Wild; instead of marginalizing and caging the Wild, and turning it into a series of products. Can we become something more than the creature that cuts off the branch that we stand on? We need to mandate Green Living. For example; we need to roll-back development; restore polluted and contaminated and abandoned areas. In short, we need to make amends before all the diversity is lost, for with it we will be lost as well.

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