Thoughts on Conservation and the America's Great Outdoors Initiative - Make Your Voice Heard!

In April of this year, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative to accomplish two important things - promote and support community-level efforts to protect and conserve outdoor spaces, and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors. As part of this initiative, President Obama announced the creation of a series of listening sessions across the country as a way to begin a collaborative discussion among all of us about conservation. (The most recent session took place in Philadelphia on July 27th.) It's a way to engage the people who enjoy outdoor spaces to find the best ideas on conservation, how the ideas can be acted upon in local communities, and how our administration can be more responsible stewards. And it's one of the best ideas I've ever heard.

The Water Gap in all her glory.
There are many critical conservation challenges facing our nation, and they're quite different from those faced when the National Park system was established. But conservation in some shape or form has always been one of them, seemingly at odds with economic development and other political and social agendas.

If the aim is to connect Americans to the outdoors and to create a sense of stewardship while meeting these challenges, the best way I can think of is exactly what our administration is doing - give people the chance to voice their opinions, and listen to them. Then give them a way to make their ideas a reality, and do it on a smaller, community-based scale.

I visited the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area for a hike this weekend, and found what I'd typically see on a warm July weekend - a variety of people enjoying the same space in a variety of different ways. There were families barbecuing, kids throwing baseballs around, paddlers with kayaks and canoes, and me, a hiker with a giant backpack. And I'd imagine all of us who use the space want to protect it as best we can.

But that's just one example. Living in Philadelphia means I've got to find urban parks on a smaller scale to enjoy when I don't have the chance to travel. And for some, that's the best example of outdoor space they have available. No matter the size or location, everyone will find ways to connect with outdoor spaces that is meaningful to them.

The problem is, outdoor spaces are continuing to disappear. Our National Parks, National Recreation Areas, and National Forests played a significant role in our history and our culture, and I can't imagine life without them. Without the actions of those who took steps to protect the great outdoors around the turn of the last century, some of the places we all hold dear likely wouldn't be here. That type of innovative thinking is why we have the spaces we have today. And it just makes sense for National Parks and our administration to continue to play a role in conservation.
"In Pennsylvania, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has funded wide-ranging land protection projects including lands at Gettysburg National Military Park, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Valley Forge National Historical Park, as well as numerous state and local parks throughout our local communities. However, much land still needs protection-- at Gettysburg, 686 acres, and at Delaware Water Gap, 2,920 acres within park boundaries are privately owned and at risk of incompatible development." - Philadelphia Listening Session Message Point
One of the significant challenges we face now in the 21st century is ensuring everyone has access to some sort of outdoor space, and ensuring conservation is compatible with our economic development. When I read the statement above, it really got me thinking. It's difficult to balance private land ownership with conservation. As much as I'd love to say no one should ever be allowed to cut down a tree, pave a new road, or use land for anything other than what Mother Earth intended, it's not realistic. Perhaps a better approach is to focus on the phrase "incompatible development," and work with private landowners as much as possible. A significant part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative is understanding the challenges we face as a nation, and coming up with innovative solutions.

I don't believe it's possible to set and achieve conservation goals without the help of the entire nation. As Baba Dioum said, "We will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand." If people don't connect with the outdoors, if urban kids don't get to experience it, they'll never feel a strong desire to protect them. I do firmly believe deep down, somewhere, we all need to spend time outside. It's where we came from and what we evolved from. But we can forget, especially in times of crisis. That's why it's so important to make your voice heard, especially when we've all been given the chance to do so through AGO, and to affect change where you can.

So, have you weighed in on conservation challenges in your area? Visit the National Parks Conservation Association's AGO page to post your ideas. You need to register to participate, then visit the Ideas page and start talking! It's a great place to advocate for our parks and how they've positively impacted our communities. Of course, there are all sorts of ideas and conflicting viewpoints, particularly around off road vehicle (ORV) use and multi-use areas. But the important thing is that everyone has a voice; make yours heard!

A big thanks to the National Parks Conservation Association for inspiring this post!


Marty Desilets said…
Hey Katie! Great post, you can even find more great information here :)

Navigating the DOI site is a bit difficult and its probably a good idea to let folks know that they have to create an account to leave a comment once they reach the AGO Ideaspace.