The federal government, the nation’s largest land manager, has a responsibility ... to help develop a conservation agenda worthy of the 21st century. We must look to the private sector and nonprofit organizations, as well as towns, cities, and states, and the people who live and work in them, to identify the places that mean the most to Americans, and leverage the support of the federal government to help these community-driven efforts to succeed. Through these partnerships, we will work to connect these outdoor spaces to each other, and to reconnect Americans to them.
— from President Barack Obama’s memorandum establishing the Great Outdoors Initiative
It’s not often that we find something good for both the soul and the pocketbook. Then again, there are not many places like the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The listening session in Asheville last week that was part of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative should, perhaps, give rise to a dose of optimism about the future of this region. And in a summer where the economic downturn has remained stubbornly entrenched and the BP oil spill has changed our understanding of what an economic disaster can be, we can use a little good news.
This newspaper has devoted lots of coverage to the Obama administration’s Great Outdoors Initiative. American Whitewater Executive Director Mark Singleton, who lives in Jackson County, has been involved in the outdoor recreation industry for a couple of decades. He was invited to Washington, D.C., in April to the kick off ceremonies for the initiative. Singleton and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee’s Vice Chairman Ken Murphy have written informative columns on our editorial pages about the initiative. The listening session in Asheville was the subject of a long story in last week’s paper.
It’s difficult to know yet — with all the other problems leaders in Washington are grappling with — whether this initiative will bear fruit. But we are at least getting a chance to send the message to Washington that investing in wilderness areas is important on many levels.
All of us are nurtured by our connection to the outdoors and to wild places. For those who don’t often get the chance to escape, I would challenge them to take a two-hour hike, a ride down one of our rives in canoe or a raft, or simply to drive up on the Parkway and stop for 30 minutes at an overlook. It just works wonder for de-cluttering, unplugging and reconnecting.
For those in this region who don’t regularly get outdoors, there’s another reason to support this effort that we hope will lead to larger investments in protecting natural areas: the outdoors and the outdoors recreation industry are the bedrock of our economy in the mountains.
The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the two most-visited units in the park system. In 2009, the Parkway had 16 million visitors and the GSMNP recorded 9.5 million visitors. This does not include the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which are among the nation’s most visited national forests. These millions of visitors are the foundation of our tourism industry, and they come back year after year. Just about every business and government unit in these mountains are dependent on the money they spend while here.
So a renewed effort to conserve more places and to enhance the recreational opportunities in our parks and national forests will mean good things for this region and its people. Whether a hunter or a kayaker, a camper or a motorcycist, lend your support to this initiative. All of us in WNC stand to benefit.