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January 15th, 2014

America’s Great Outdoors Initiative



President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative seeks to promote and support community efforts to conserve natural spaces and reconnect Americans to the outdoors. Pictured: a “listening session” soliciting input from everyday Americans as to what mattered most to them regarding conservation and access to the outdoors.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the Obama administration’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative and what does it hope to accomplish?    -- Doug St. James, NY

President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum in April 2010 establishing the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to promote and support innovative community-level efforts to conserve outdoor spaces and reconnect Americans to the outdoors. The Memorandum calls for collaboration among the Departments of Interior and Agriculture as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House’s own Council on Environmental Quality in leading the initiative. Eight other federal agencies play a supporting role—and literally thousands of other partners from state, local and tribal governments, non-profits and the private sector are involved as well. Getting young people, especially city kids, into the outdoors to experience our country’s unique natural heritage is a top priority of America’s Great Outdoors.

Before pursuing any specific strategies, initiative leaders solicited feedback from everyday Americans as to what mattered most to them regarding conservation and access to the outdoors. Some 105,000 written comments and many more spoken ones from “listening sessions” held coast to coast streamed in and were crucial to the development of programs. Public feedback continues to shape the initiative’s agenda.

Some of the programs that fall under the umbrella of America’s Great Outdoors include: the Veterans Fire Corps, which employs veterans in forest fire management; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s program providing technical training and work opportunities for underserved youth in habitat restoration and fisheries monitoring; and the establishment of a new network of “water trails” coast to coast to increase everyone’s access to the outdoors.

America’s Great Outdoors was in the news recently when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the launch of 21st Century Conservation Service Corps as part of the program. “21CSC,” as Jewell calls it, aims to be a modern incarnation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that President Franklin Roosevelt used to help put Americans back to work during the Great Depression. Jewell envisions a 100,000 person strong “CCC 2.0” that will provide opportunities for thousands of young Americans—6.7 million of whom are currently unemployed or not in school—and veterans transitioning back to civilian life to serve their country, feel proud of what they are accomplishing and improve their own lives and the lives of others around them.

Part of what makes America’s Great Outdoors unique is that partners from every sector of American society—not just the federal government—are encouraged to help. 21CSC is partially funded by a $1 million dollar donation from clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters, and Jewell is in search of another $19 million from other private sector partners to turn the program into a potent force for reducing youth and veteran unemployment while giving our endangered lands and waterways some much-needed attention.

Environmentalists may be disappointed that the Obama administration hasn’t been able to muscle through mandatory greenhouse gas emissions cuts and put sustainability concerns at the forefront of the policymaking process, but getting unprecedented numbers of Americans involved in conservation projects that protect the nation’s treasured natural heritage is a worthy conservation legacy in its own right. The program is sure to positively impact generations of Americans for decades to come.

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