Shaking the President’s Hand at the White House Conf. on Conservation
By Tiffany Saleh, Mission Outdoors Outreach Representative
“Connecting people to our lands is personally important to me,” said President Obama at the White House Conference on Conservation, held last Friday at the Department of the Interior. The conference, convened by the President and his cabinet, was titled Growing America’s Outdoor Heritage and Economy, and involved leaders in the conservation community in a discussion about progress made by the America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) initiative and strategies for growing that success.
I was honored to receive an invitation to speak during a conference breakout panel on youth and outdoor education. In attending the conference, I was glad to see a continued focus on connecting people to the outdoors, the prime focus of Sierra Club’s Mission Outdoors. Since the inception of the AGO initiative two years ago, Mission Outdoors has taken this opportunity to not only educate leaders about the growing divide between people and nature, but to encourage this issue’s inclusion as a major pillar of the Administration’s conservation platform. We organized youth leaders to attend the listening sessions, developed for Sierra Club’s vision document recommendations about reconnecting youth with the outdoors, worked with our partners at OAK- the Outdoors Alliance for Kids to support the First Lady’s Lets Move Outside initiative, and much more.
That’s why I was so happy to hear the Administration emphasizing over and over the importance of getting outdoors, not only for individuals, but for the conservation movement and the American economy. I was joined in this by my colleagues who also attended the conference: Jackie Ostfeld, Fran Hunt, Athan Manuel, and Matt Kirby. During the conference, Secretary Salazar emphasized the economic power of conservation, preservation and outdoor tourism, calling these collective points a huge cornerstone of the American economy. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley led a panel on Renewing Communities: Connecting People to Nearby Open Space. Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo-Ellen Darcy highlighted their program to retrain returning veterans in outdoor education and interpretation skills. Check out some highlights in the video below (see if you can spot me at 2:15!).
Overcoming this disconnect from nature is vital to the future of conservation in America, a point which I emphasized while speaking on the Youth and Outdoor Education breakout panel. Sierra Club is bringing over a century of experience to bear in overcoming the barriers to getting outdoors today. I highlighted how we are supporting the AGO Initiative- we get 250,000 people outdoors every year!- but also called on the Administration and the conservation community to work together to find solutions to the barriers that are keeping people indoors. As moderator Jon Carson, Director of the Office of Public Engagement, recognized, Sierra Club continues to be a critical partner in implementing the AGO initiative. I was proud to represent that body of work on the panel and to call for greater commitments to get America outdoors.
To my surprise and excitement, President Obama joined the conference to give the closing remarks. As a speaker, I was again honored with a seat in the front of the house, and an opportunity to shake the President’s hand after his speech. I assure you, that was an unforgettable moment (I just wish I had a picture of it!).
During his remarks, the President again emphasized the economic power of getting outdoors: “[We need] the kind of ideas that preserve our environment, protect our bottom line, and connect more Americans to the great outdoors.” But it was his comments about the personal effect the outdoors has had on him that stayed with me. The President spoke movingly of his first trip to Yellowstone National Park, and how inspired he was when he later repeated that experience with his own children. That inspiration drives his current commitment to preserving those experiences for future Americans.
“And that is what we have to fight for. That’s what’s critical, is making sure that we’re always there to bequeath that gift to the next generation…I’ll do everything I can to help protect our economy but also protect this amazing planet that we love and this great county that we’ve been blessed with.”
Mr. President, I couldn’t agree more.