The Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative yesterday released a report proposing a wide range of programs meant to conserve public lands for outdoors recreation and get the increasingly couch-bound American public back outside.
Among other things, the plan would establish a new Conservation Service Corp, similar to the New Deal-era program of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to put young people to work conserving public lands. It also calls for providing $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a chronically underfunded National Park Service program established in 1965 to provide money for national parks, forests and wildlife areas.
The report calls for creating more urban parks and “blueways,” river trails to encourage outdoor recreation and stimulate related economic activity in communities through which the trails flow.
“Today, our open spaces are more precious than ever, and it’s more important than ever that we come together to protect them for the next generation,” said President Obama at a White House news conference. “To make it easier for families to spend time outside no matter where they live, we’re going to work with cities and states to build and improve urban parks and waterways, and make it easier to access public lands.”
The report emerged from a series of 51 listening sessions held nationwide last summer and comments provided through the initiative’s website. The federal agencies participating in the program collected comments from more than 100,000 people.
The report notably focuses on getting America’s electronics-obsessed young people back outdoors. It also emphasized conservation and access of rivers as a way to encourage outdoor recreation, drawing praise for the recommendations from river conservation and recreation groups.
“The vast majority of Americans are a short drive from a river or stream where they can paddle a boat,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of the whitewater paddlers group, American Whitewater, in a press release. “Supporting river recreation is easy: Citizens just need public access, adequate clean water, a compelling landscape to paddle through and information on flows and rivers.”
In particular, American Whitewater applauded the full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the park service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance (RTCA) program, which supports community-led natural resource conservation and outdoor recreation projects.
“We work with RTCA and count on LWCF for countless river access projects,” said Thomas O’Keefe, AW’s Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director. “Establishing public access to rivers like Oregon’s Wild and Scenic Crooked River is an ongoing goal that full funding of LWCF will help us accomplish.”
Portions of the president’s 2012 proposed budget, released on Monday, were clearly meant to support the recommendations laid out in yesterday’s report. The budget calls for $2.9 billion for the National Park Service, including funding for America’s Great Outdoors, LWCF and RTCA, an increase of $138 million above current levels.
While still short of the proposed $900 in funding, the budget would increase funding for LWCF to $360 million, up from $126 million in 2010. By law, 40 percent of the funding is dedicated to purchasing new federal lands and the rest goes to state conservation programs. To fully fund the program, the government would tap the fossil fuel industry.
“We are intending to pay for it with existing oil and gas revenues,” Obama said Wednesday. “If you take something out of the earth, you have the responsibility to give something back to it.”
How Obama’s policy and budget proposals fare in congress is, of course, a different matter. Last week, House Republicans unveiled a proposal government budget plan for the rest of the the fiscal year that would cut funding for LWCF.
Republican leaders have complained that Obama’s policies favor the renewable energy industry at the expense of the fossil fuels industry. Just last month, for instance, the EPA raised Republican ire by blocking a permit for the largest mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia due to the environmental damage the mine would have caused.
On Wednesday, Republican Rep. Doc Hastings, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, told the online political magazine, Politico, that “it made little sense to purchase more federal land at a time when the National Park System faces a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog,” as the Politico reporter summarized it.
Also on Wednesday, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), introduced an amendment to cut funding to the Interior Department’s National Landscape Conservation System, another federal conservation program. Bishop called the program “an unnecessary bureaucracy that is inappropriately cozy with environmental advocates,” according to Politico.
Hoping to counter Republican resistance and raise support for the action plan released yesterday, Obama’s Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, is in New York today as part of a plan to promote the outdoors initiative on the East Coast and in California.