Next Steps for America’s Great Outdoors

by Robert Verchick

February 21, 2011

If you’ve ever visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—one of the most visited national parks in the United States—you have Horace Kephart and George Masa to thank. These two men, the first a travel writer, the second a landscape photographer from Osaka, Japan, each settled among those six-thousand foot peaks with intentions of starting a new life in the American wild. Unfortunately, the timber industry had gotten there first and was soon mowing down forests at the rate of 60 acres per day. Distressed by such calamity, Kephart and Masa organized a diverse grassroots campaign to raise millions of dollars to save the area. Fueled by church donations, high school fundraisers, and other activities, the campaign eventually enabled the federal government, through a public-private partnership, to set aside land for what would finally become by 1940, a protected, 814-square-mile expanse of America’s Great Outdoors.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama invoked the memory of Kephart and Masa before a cheerful audience in the East Room of the White House, as he reported on his administration’s centerpiece conservation strategy known as the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. I was there, squeezed between two-big shouldered men and surrounded by dozens of outdoor enthusiasts: ranchers, farmers, hunters, anglers, corporate executives, tribal representatives, backpackers, environmental activists, and two adorable grade school girls from the Washington area, wearing “Buddy Bison” T-shirts. I was not the only one to note the irony of celebrating the outdoors in an indoor venue (what, then, do you do with your cowboy hat?), but that point soon gave way to the just-released AGO Report which articulated for the first time the President’s strategy for a 21st century conservation and recreation agenda. (Disclosure: I recently served in the Obama Administration's EPA and contributed to the report.) 

Open the executive summary to Chapter 1 and you learn that the most pressing challenge in the nation’s great outdoors is . . . Jobs! We need them! And fast! So the first recommendations center on streamlining federal career opportunities in nature conservancy and developing a Conservation Service Corps for young people interested in public lands and water restoration. Both fine ideas, particularly the second, which the President said would “encourage young people to put down the remote or the video games and get outside.” But the real meat comes in a later chapter on conservation and restoration. 

There the report promises a big shot of vitamin B for the malnourished Land and Water Conservation Fund, the nation’s primary source of funds for state and federal conservation projects. In the scores of public listening sessions that informed this report, LWCF funding came up again and again. (Although the program is authorized to receive up to $900 million each year, congressional appropriations have been low and unpredictable.) If fully funded, the LWCF would be directed toward new initiatives. A favorite of mine would establish a new generation of “great urban parks,” while locating smaller green spaces--pocket parks, community vegetable gardens, and the like--in disadvantaged communities. A second very promising recommendation focuses on water, calling for a “National Recreational Blueway Trails Initiative,” to support local efforts to link aquatic resources with adjacent green space. In addition, federal resource projects would be integrated into local watershed protection efforts to enhance habitat restoration, water-based recreation, cultural uses, and flood control.

In his remarks the President explained that the new LWCF funds would come from existing oil and gas revenue generated from federal offshore leases. Or as he put it, to spirited applause, “Our attitude is if you take something out of the Earth, you have a responsibility to give a little bit back to the Earth.” 

We’ll see. Republicans in the House of Representatives have already threatened to kill expanded LWCF funding. But they do so at their peril. When you can fill a room with briefcased executives, leather-skirted cowgirls, and tattooed community organizers, you’ve got the beginnings of a broad coalition that would do justice to even Kephart and Mesa. If only they were hiring.

Robert R.M. Verchick is a Member Scholar on Leave from the Center for Progressive Reform and the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World


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