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March 22, 2011

Rebooting America's Outdoors

It's a famous photo: President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir are posed together on the overlook at Glacier Point in 1903. Roosevelt stares directly at the camera, looking like he wants to bust a bronco and play a polo match at the same time. Muir, dressed like a well-heeled hobo, gazes off toward the mountains. It was during this three-night camping trip in Yosemite that Muir persuaded Roosevelt that his beloved Yosemite should be a national park -- protected and managed by the federal government for all Americans.

It's too bad we don't still lobby presidents that way because the results were stupendous. By the time Roosevelt left office six years later, he'd helped create 150 national forests, five national parks, and 18 national monuments -- an unparalleled legacy of lands protection for an American president. And for the next hundred years, that legacy served us well.

Now, though, it's time for an update, and that's exactly what the Obama administration has been working on for most of the past year. The interagency initiative is called "America's Great Outdoors," and the first published report on their work is subtitled: "A Promise to Future Generations." A lot of it talks about ways to strengthen and deepen the connection that Americans have with the outdoors -- something Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir would enthusiastically have endorsed. But the report also digs deep into how we can best conserve our nation's incredible natural heritage in a world that neither Muir nor Roosevelt could ever have imagined.

Right now, it's still just a report and a lot of good intentions. But if the potential of the America's Great Outdoors initiative is realized, here are three important ways it will update conservation policies for the 21st century:

First, the initiative is strongly based on public input and a grassroots-driven, transparent approach to setting policy. I'm glad Roosevelt listened so closely to Muir, but these days we need to hear from a lot more voices. Many thousands of people contributed opinions and ideas during the past year to this initiative, both online and through listening sessions, and it's clear that Obama's team took their input seriously. That's as it should be -- public lands and wilderness belong to the American people, including future generations.

Second, the report acknowledges that the old model of piecemeal lands protection no longer works. We need to establish contiguous protected habitats that allow plants and animals to survive, adapt, and thrive -- especially as landscapes are altered by climate disruption. That's also the charter of one of the Sierra Club's major campaigns: identifying and protecting Resilient Habitats. And speaking of climate, it's a recurring theme throughout this report -- both as a threat and as a problem that can be addressed through smart conservation policies (like protecting the Tongass National Forest). 

Finally, the report sets ambitious goals for getting different parts of the federal government to cooperate and work with each other as well as with local governments and communities. President Obama joked about this bureaucratic inefficiency during his State of the Union Address:

Then there's my favorite example: The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater. I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked.

That got a big laugh, perhaps because no one knows better how nonsensical federal bureaucracy can be than the feds themselves. But if different governmental departments can align and strategically coordinate their programs, then the resulting efficiency could end up meaning more for conservation at a time when it's harder than ever to find.

There's lots more in the report, and I hope that as many Americans as possible will read it and keep offering their suggestions and ideas. Because the real work is still ahead of us:  building a consensus among the landowners (that's you and me) about how to move forward. For my part, any time President Obama wants to head into the back country for a few days, I'll be happy to bring the trail mix.

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