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American Trails attended the historic White House Conference on America's Great Outdoors held on April 16 in Washington DC.

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President's message inspires trail supporters

"America’s outdoors are part of our national identity... Too many of these places are disappearing,” said Nancy Sutley, Chair of The White House Council on Environmental Quality.“ They are the farms, ranches and forests that we take great pride in and the neighborhood parks, trails and fields where we spend memorable time with our families and friends... In launching this conversation, we strive to learn about the smart, creative community efforts underway throughout the country to conserve our outdoor spaces, and hear how we can support these efforts.”

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Community Trails are a key element of "America's Great Outdoors"

This was the charge that led the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors hosted in Washington, DC on April 16th. The conference, led by Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, set out to address the “challenges, opportunities and innovations surrounding modern-day land conservation and the importance of reconnecting Americans... to the Outdoors.”

The daylong working session included participation by representatives and national leaders in recreation, conservation, education, farming and ranching, the outdoor outfitting and tourism industry and other individuals and organizations from across the nation working for a better connection with the outdoors.

American Trails was invited to participate and I had the honor of attending. The event included panel presentations by leaders from both the public and private sector as well as elected officials from rural, wilderness and urban venues. It also included break-out sessions where we were given to opportunity to share ideas in smaller groups.

During the morning session, President Obama arrived, gave a rousing (and witty at times) speech. In presenting his first major conservation address, the President recounted a similar gathering convened 100 years ago by President Theodore Roosevelt. He then signed a Memorandum establishing “A 21st Century Strategy for America’s Great Outdoors” The memorandum called for the formation of a concerted effort among federal, state, local, private, tribal interests and others to reconnect Americans, especially children, to America’s outdoors and for “science-based management practices to restore and protect America’s lands and waters for future generations.” The memorandum also directed the key federal department and agencies, led by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House to “align policies and programs to achieve the goals.” This conference will be followed by a series of national gatherings, starting in Los Angeles this year and required annual progress reports.

I took away four inspiring points made by President Obama and the other speakers:

During the course of the presentations, I heard a number of moving quotes and talking points. Sally Jewell, the CEO of REI offered at striking economic perspective that the outdoors recreation industry collectively totals over $750 Billion per year contributing to over 6.5 million jobs. Another speaker reminded us of the practical connectivity of our resources. Stressing the importance of conserving healthy salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest he quipped “people in New Jersey eat salmon too.” (This quote seems especially relevant with the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico— a vital seafood and fish food source for all Americans— now threatened by a massive oil spill.)

Perhaps a quote I heard by Lynne Scherrod, a 5th generation rancher from Colorado and now a Principal with the Land Trust Alliance best summed up the true picture when she heard an old sage—watching a nearby parcel of land being sold off for subdivision— say:

“When you have the land, you’ve got something. You can feed yourself, you can live there…When you sell your land, you have a dollar but when the dollar’s gone you have nothing.”

This bit of insight not only applies to an individual’s ranch or farm, it applies to all us as a nation. As Americans each of us is a landowner— of our public lands— and each of us depends on the land, air, water and green spaces for our physical well-being and mental and spiritual health. A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt saw this threat when he stepped forward to stop the wholesale destruction of our nation’s landscapes and resources for profit and short-term gain. He realized that their was a much more important long-term value and took a stand against powerful interests to protect millions of acres leaving a national parks and national forests legacy. Today in the face of similar threats and those who would again trade our priceless national land and water resources for short-term gain, a new 100-year legacy initiative is needed.

At American Trails, we believe that trails movement has an important role to play in this renewal of the land stewardship ethic. Trails and greenways, both in urban areas and in wild places offer the essential element of connectivity. Hiking a trail, paddling a river or just taking a walk in the woods gives people a tangible sense of these values. In the spirit of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Youth Conservation Corps, expanding youth (and adult) engagement in trail projects, tree-plantings, wetland restorations, and other hands-on outdoor projects will also renew this ethic.

We encourage our readers and our membership to work actively in your respective areas of expertise and passion and in your communities to further these visions. Without that connectivity, we as a nation will more easily fall prey to losing our conservation ethic, I fear, with devastating consequences. Hopefully, the effort, initiated by President Obama on April 16th— calling, not just for federal action, but for pubic and private partnerships and broad participation at the state and local levels, will succeed.

Bob Searns, Chair of the American Trails Board, is a greenways and trails development consultant, and Founding Associate of The Greenway Team, Inc., a company that assists communities and organizations across America.

arrow Read more about the Initiative to Develop a 21st Century Strategy for America's Great Outdoors

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