More of the same for the great outdoors

 

by Laura E. Huggins

Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its much-anticipated report on the America’s Great Outdoors initiative. The report is the culmination of 51 listening sessions held over the past year by administration officials to gather ideas on land management and outdoor recreation from across the country.

The result, however, is just more of the same.

The initiative is pitched by the administration as a bottom-up, grassroots campaign, but in reality, the proposal is merely a repackaging of existing programs run by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, EPA, and Council on Environmental Quality. Indeed, the cornerstone of the report, a fully-funded Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), is more about politics than about actual conservation.

The LWCF is the government’s primary land acquisition program. The president proposes to use revenues from federal oil and gas leases to fully fund the LWCF at $900 million a year.

But here’s the problem: the LWCF only provides funding for acquisition of new lands. The program provides no funding to conserve existing lands. This type of “park-barrel politics” benefits politicians eager to cut ribbons on new parks, but neglects the conservation needs on public lands the government already owns. If you set aside land for conservation, don’t you have a responsibility to provide the resources necessary to conserve it?

On the 650 million acres of existing federal land, conservation projects are going unfunded. Maintenance of infrastructure is already lacking—as evidenced by leaky sewer systems, crumbling roads, and dilapidated buildings. The National Parks Conservation Association notes that despite millions in stimulus funding, a chronic backlog of about $8 billion (with a B!) exists for current maintenance and preservation projects. Decades of neglect on Forest Service lands have also led to a multi-billion dollar backlog.

Besides conservation, the program also plans to increase Americans’ awareness of the outdoors—especially for children. It is true that children are spending less time outdoors. Indeed, visits to national parks have been trending downward for 23 years. According to the National Park Service there were 281 million visitors in 2010—six million visitors less than in 1987, despite a larger population.

Parents are no longer sending their kids to camps or even outside to play. Author Richard Louve coined this phenomena “nature deficit disorder.” As a parent and an environmentalist, this situation concerns me, but is it the federal government’s job to solve this problem? This special report on outdoor education has some interesting alternatives.

I attended one of the first listening sessions in Montana. During the session a video explained that President Obama intended to build on a “breathtaking legacy of conservation” started by Theodore Roosevelt, whom Obama described as “one of my favorite presidents.”

But there’s something this “grassroots” initiative has forgotten from the start: if Obama intends to emulate President Roosevelt, then the approach will be top-down, not bottom-up. Theodore Roosevelt, the original progressive, moved the country away from local control of resources toward centralized bureaucratic management. Roosevelt set aside 200 million acres of public land and created several new federal management agencies. See Greener Than Thou for more details on Roosevelt’s conservation legacy.

The Great Outdoors Initiative is touted as a bottom-up program looking to the private sector, nonprofits, and the people who live and work in towns across America to identify innovative solutions to protect the environment and encourage kids to go outside. But buyer beware. This program looks like more of the top-down political land management that we’ve seen from Washington for decades. The administration is to be commended for recognizing the need for change, but what we got was just more of the same.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

This blog post was originally posted at the PERColator, a project of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). PERC, a nonprofit located in Bozeman, MT, is dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.

Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at PERC