by Whit Gibbons

March 13, 2011

President Obama has announced the creation of a community-based conservation plan, a program called America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The goal is to "achieve lasting conservation of the outdoor spaces that power our nation's economy, shape our culture, and build our outdoor traditions." The initiative seeks to get people, especially young people, outdoors on a more regular basis so they can appreciate the importance of the nation's lands and waters.

The much-needed reinvigoration of outdoor appreciation should include an understanding of the need for our natural environments to coexist with farming, ranching and other agricultural endeavors. We need to rekindle an appreciation in Americans, especially young ones, for hunting, fishing and other activities that put families and friends outdoors. Getting youngsters away from computers and other electronic devices for a few hours a week or month would be in society's best interest.

America's Great Outdoors Initiative gives farmers, ranchers and private landowners an opportunity to contribute by offering support for those who "help protect rural landscapes and provide access for recreation." Likewise, revenues from oil and gas removal will help protect parks, green spaces and wildlife habitats, as well as promote recreational activities at the sites. The idea is to move our country in a direction that creates "a 21st-century conservation ethic . . . for environmental stewardship" that connects us "to our historic, cultural, and natural heritage."

The president's plan is intended to develop local, community-level conservation and recreation agendas. Surveys taken across the country revealed that among the steps needed to accomplish the goals of the program were accessible parks, including "a new generation of great urban parks," or green spaces for children, and restoration of rivers to revitalize communities. The ideas presented on the Great Outdoors website at http://americasgreatoutdoors.gov/ should receive widespread support.

The site invites comments on any aspect of being outdoors and on the many issues involved with outdoor activities. Some links lead to debates among people who favor outdoor activities but do not always agree on the details, such as whether mountain bikers who pay fees should have greater access to certain trails than do hikers who pay no fees. On another topic, someone noted that "one of the things that drives me crazy as a hunter and hiker . . . is the overgrazing on Forest Service lands." Should the federal government be subsidizing cattle ranchers rather than opening up the lands for camping, hunting or bird-watching?

The first thing many will ask is how such an initiative will be paid for; how will it affect the economy? Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the issue in part, saying, "America's farmlands and woodlands help fuel our economy and create jobs across the rural areas of our country. This plan seeks to work in partnership with landowners, conservation groups, states and others to conserve our working lands and our public lands and to reconnect Americans." The long-term economic value of a program that engenders new appreciation of our natural environment will more than pay for any short-term costs.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar noted that the program was based on "practical, common-sense ideas from the American people on how our natural, cultural, and historic resources can help us be a more competitive, stronger, and healthier nation. Together, we are adapting our conservation strategies to meet the challenges of today and empowering communities to protect and preserve our working lands and natural landscapes for generations to come." Clearly, this is a long-term perspective. When we think of the environment, natural habitats and native wildlife we should always take a comprehensive, long-term view not a myopic, short-term one.

Today's children spend half as much time outside as their parents did. Also, many Americans live in urban communities without access to safe, open, green spaces. You do not have to be an ecologist or an environmentalist to know that having a society that has drifted away from its environmental roots is not good for the economy, the environment or the country itself.

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