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The Conference launched the "21st Century Strategy for America’s Great Outdoors" and to provide a forum on strategies and obstacles for (a) connecting outdoor spaces and (b) reconnecting Americans to the outdoors.

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Report on a listening session for America’s Great Outdoors Initiative

By Larry E. Smith, Executive Director, Americans for Responsible Recreational Access (July 1, 2010)

As I mentioned in the May newsletter, President Obama convened the White House Conference on the Great Outdoors on April 16th as a means to start a national dialogue about conservation issues. In addition to the initial conference led by the President, the Administration has begun to host a number of "listening sessions" in locations throughout the country. The Administration stated that "The America's Great Outdoors Initiative aims to reinvigorate the national conversation about the outdoors, and leverage the support of the Federal Government to help these community-driven efforts succeed."

One of those "listening sessions" was recently held in Annapolis, Maryland and since it was close to Washington, DC, I took the opportunity to attend and participate in the session. At least 400 other people interested in the great outdoors were present, as well as an all-star cast of political figures including: Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior; Bob Perciasepe, the Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; Harris Sherman, the Under Secretary of the Department of Agriculture; Martin O'Malley, the Governor of Maryland; Ben Cardin, U.S. Senator from Maryland; and Congressman John Sarbanes, representing the 3rd Congressional District of Maryland, which includes Annapolis.

The meeting started 30 minutes late, with no explanation for the delay. We heard speeches from all of the officials present and at times, the session seemed more like a pep rally for the Obama Administration, rather than a session to receive public input. Now, there is nothing wrong with that since this was a meeting called by the Administration, but for at least the first 45 minutes, it was a one-sided conversation. Following the speeches, a video about the Great Outdoors was shown.

Secretary Salazar then led a panel discussion of representatives from five community organizations who shared examples of "innovative land conservation, recreation and citizen stewardship." The Secretary asked questions of each of the panelists, but unfortunately no questions were taken from the floor. Once again it was the people on the stage doing all the talking, rather than having a two-way conversation with those of us in the audience.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, the attendees then went to facilitated break-out sessions organized around four topic areas:

I attended the "recreation and public access" session which was facilitated by a career National Park Service employee and he did an excellent job. If he had a bias in terms of issues, one would not have been able to tell. He worked diligently to hear what the participants had to say. Notes were taken on the session and presumably will be compiled along with notes taken from the other sessions.

The break-out sessions were scheduled for a full two hours, but ended up being only one hour in length because of the delayed start of the first session and the long speeches of the politicians. So, rather than a dialogue taking place among the various participants in our break-out session, we endured a series of statements from people with various perspectives (including yours truly), but there was no real give and take.

I think the idea of holding "listening sessions" throughout the country is a good one. But, if my experience in Annapolis is any indication, the sessions could be more productive if there was more listening and less talking on the part of those officials representing the Obama Administration.

We know that other "listening sessions" are planned for Seattle, Los Angeles, Asheville, Minneapolis, New York, Maine/New Hampshire, Anchorage and Denver. Frankly, it has been difficult to obtain this information on a timely basis. When I checked the Great Outdoors website today, only information about the events in Seattle and Los Angeles was available. One needs to keep checking that website on a regular basis to find out what else has been scheduled. This doesn't make advanced planning easy. Even so, I can't emphasize strongly enough the importance of motorized recreation enthusiasts attending and participating in these sessions.

November 15th is the day that a report is going to be placed on President Obama's desk with a set of recommendations that were supposedly gleaned from all of these "listening sessions." My fear is that the recommendations will call for more wilderness areas more monuments areas, but little will be said about granting the American people greater access to our public lands. The role that responsible motorized recreation can play in getting the American people out into the great outdoors needs to be told. From what I experienced at the Annapolis session, very few people shared ARRA's perspective on motorized recreation. So, unless you attend and share your perspective, it won't be heard.


Larry E. Smith
Executive Director
Americans for Responsible Recreational Access

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