By Mark Singleton • Guest Columnist
Even in times of crisis, we’re called to take the long view to preserve our national heritage — because in doing so we fulfill one of the responsibilities that falls to all of us as Americans, and as inhabitants of this same small planet.
— President Barack Obama, April 16, 2010
Over the weekend President Obama took in the sights and tastes of Asheville. Sure is good to see a sitting President vacationing in our region, experiencing the great outdoors and hiking along the AT with the First Lady. They now know what all of us who live here know, that Western North Carolina is one of the last great places where the quality of life and access to the outdoors remain very high.
Aside from remarkable scenic vistas, the outdoors and public lands are an important component of our economy as well. The Outdoor Industry Association, an industry trade group, reports that outdoor recreation contributes $730 billion and 6.5 million jobs to the national economy. In North Carolina alone, outdoor recreation contributes $7.5 billion to the state’s economy and supports 95,000 jobs.
Our national parks, forest service lands, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas are all an essential part of our shared national heritage of treasured landscapes. These are the places where millions of Americans connect with nature. Those of us living in Western North Carolina are extremely fortunate to have such quick access to such areas in our backyard.
Ten days ago I had the good fortune to participate in the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors. Four administration officials — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley made statements at the event. Plus, the Commander and Chief himself, President Obama, addressed a mixed group of conservation interests, ranchers, farmers, timber and mining executives, agency staff and recreational users.
In his speech at the Interior Department, President Obama said he intends to build upon “a breathtaking legacy of conservation that still enhances our lives.” He said the tradition began with Theodore Roosevelt, whom he described as “one of my favorite presidents,” although he added “I will probably never shoot a bear.”
In more than 20 years of public policy work on tourism and outdoor recreation issues, I have never heard or seen a sitting President place conservation and stewardship as a priority in the national agenda and challenge such a diverse group to create a collective strategy for our public lands. To launch the initiative, President Obama signed a memorandum outlining policy goals the administration prioritizes over the next few years: forming coalitions with state and local governments as well as the private sector, encouraging outdoor recreation by Americans, and connecting wildlife migration corridors.
Sitting in the chair that I occupy as executive director of a national nonprofit that focuses on river conservation issues, I have a couple of comments on shaping the 21st Century Strategy for America’s Great Outdoors.
First, that conservation and outdoor recreation are mutually dependent. Whether it is catching tadpoles in streams as a child or kayaking rivers as an adult, time spent interacting with nature forms the basis of the American conservation ethic. Outdoor recreationists need natural landscapes, and those landscapes very much need outdoor recreationists to act as stewards of those resources.
Second, public land managers should not alienate visitors in meeting other goals. Recreation is often viewed by agencies as just one more impact to manage; something to be tolerated rather than encouraged. Rules are often inequitably applied in a manner that allows resource extraction but discourages recreational use. As a result, citizens are turned away and small businesses like kayak instructors find it easier to lead trips to other countries than to nearby public lands. Administrative direction in support of agencies encouraging human powered outdoor recreation could improve this problem.
And third, rivers should be universally recognized as valuable open space suitable for human powered recreation. Rivers and streams offer a free, existing and vast network of close-to-home, public, nature-based recreation opportunities. The federal government has authority to regulate and support public recreation on rivers and streams but does not do so.
Increasingly, private landowners are allowed to close rivers to public enjoyment. While a piecemeal approach is now delineating blueways or water trails, simple expression of existing federal rights could assure that every citizen, and every family, has a nearby venue for outdoor recreation.
It’s been exciting to see the President and First Lady in our neck of the woods. What’s even more encouraging is that the First Family seems to be practicing what they preach by taking in the great outdoors as part of an active vacation agenda. Our collective national heritage is too important an issue to get caught up in partisan politics. It’s not an issue based on red or blue. Rather, it’s a question of what you want to leave behind for your grandchildren.